There are few experiences more meaningful than donating blood stem cells to save someone’s life – and one of those is meeting the person you saved for the first time! On August 14, 2023, two attendees at Gift of Life’s Campus Ambassador Symposium opening banquet had exactly that experience. Stem cell donor Raphael Eidelman (above, left) was introduced to the South Florida man whose life he saved, Mitchell Stern, for the first time.
The symposium, held at the Boca Raton Marriott at Town Center, was hosted to train Gift of Life Campus Ambassadors, known as CAPs, to run donor recruitment drives on their college campuses across the country. Due to the large number of CAPs in 2023, the organization held two symposiums, one in July and one in August.
During the banquet, special guest Dr. Benjamin “Benji” Merzel spoke to the new Campus Ambassadors about the history of the organization and the incredible impact that recruiting just one donor can have.
Dr. Benji Merzel (l) played a key role in finding the matching bone marrow donor who saved Gift of Life Founder and CEO Jay Feinberg's life during a worldwide search that lasted from 1991 to 1995.
In 1995, Benji organized a drive to help find a donor for Gift of Life Founder and CEO Jay Feinberg, as part of a four-year, international grassroots search. As Jay’s health was declining, this was to be the last drive held for him. A young volunteer at that drive agreed to be tested at the end of the day as they were packing up. That woman, Becky Faibisoff Keller, turned out to be Jay’s perfect match. Benji’s determination to hold that last, hopeful drive not only saved Jay’s life, but also resulted in the founding of Gift of Life, and thousands of lives being saved.
After sharing this incredible story, Benji was given the honor of introducing cancer survivor Mitchell Stern to his lifesaving blood stem cell donor, Raphael “Rafi” Eidelman.
Mitchell, a 66-year-old retired resident of Boca Raton, was battling myelodysplastic syndrome. Only a transplant would be able to save his life and fortunately, his matching donor was already in Gift of Life’s registry.
Before welcoming Rafi to the stage, Benji told Mitchell a bit about him. Rafi, 22 years old and a graduate of California State University, Northridge, signed up for the registry as an undergraduate when his fraternity, AEPi, held an on-campus Swab-a-Thon in 2019.
Rafi then joined Mitchell on stage where the two embraced warmly, and each spoke about their experiences.
“I can’t thank Rafi enough,” said Mitchell. “Just to meet him and get a chance to express my gratitude in person means a lot.”
“People called me a hero, but I think I just did the right thing,” said Rafi. “It is a very positive experience just to see the person who is alive because of my actions. I don’t even know how to feel.”
Raphael graduated from CSU Northridge and is a filmmaker. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend and his dog, watching movies, hiking in national parks, surfing, sailing, and writing.
Mitchell is retired from his career as a commodities trader, and now enjoys playing golf and exercising. He is married to Kim and has an adult daughter, Amanda.