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Stem cell donor finds himself emotionally invested in helping his recipient

Jun 21, 2022 by Gift of Life Donor Story

Avi joined Gift of Life on an impulse, hoping, but not really expecting, that he would match a patient in need someday. 

“There’s a little store next to my office and some students from my high school, Yeshiva University High School, had a table set up and were asking people to swab their cheeks,” said Avi. “I was just walking by the store as I do every day and didn’t think twice about it, I just swabbed. And then I forgot about it.” 

Eighteen months later, Avi was at his parents’ house when his phone lit up. 

“I was in the kitchen with my mom and all at one I got an email, a text message, and a LinkedIn message,” said Avi. “I told my mom that I had just received all these messages from Gift of Life, and she said, ‘Do you think it’s a scam?’ Then I got the phone call and talked to the donor services coordinator, who gave me all the details and got me set up to do the confirmatory typing.” 

Confirmatory Typing is a recheck of the donor’s tissue type to ensure they are the best match for the patient, typically done with a second cheek swab kit or a blood test. 

Avi, who is an attorney in Los Angeles, Calif., was a match for a 37-year-old man battling leukemia. As he was able to work remotely, he flew to Florida to donate at the state-of-the-art Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Gift of Life-Be The Match Collection Center, at Gift of Life’s Boca Raton headquarters. 

He explained to his 4-year-old son that he was going out of town for a few days to help a sick person. “Do you have to get a shot?” asked his son, who had recently received a flu shot. “Yes, five of them.” “Oh, Abba, that’s too much shots!” “Well, sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable to help someone.” After thinking it through, his son told him, “When I’m a grown up like you, I can do it, too.” 

Peripheral blood stem cell donors receive five shots of Neupogen®, one each day for four days, and the last one shortly before donating. This stimulates the production of stem cells, mobilizes them into the circulating blood for collection, and has been used safely since the early 1990s.

“On arriving at the hotel, I discovered I was the youngest person there,” said Avi, who donated in March during the height of Florida’s winter tourist season. “Everyone else was a snowbird, and I ended up having breakfast with an older couple every day. Coincidentally, he was a retired oncologist whose work during his career had involved finding the genetic matches for stem cell transplants. He told me I was one in a million.” 

I felt emotionally invested quite quickly. I wondered how similar he is to me, does he also have a kid, is he married or have a partner, how long has he been ill? I would love to know how he is doing over time.

Avi found the collection process to be effortless thanks to the collection center staff. Although the apheresis process normally takes four to six hours, Avi had responded strongly to the Neupogen shots and his donation went quickly. 
“It was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “Collection only took three hours but I was expecting it to take longer. I finished donating before lunch came in. The facility was great, the drivers were great, and the nurses were very nice to me. One of them even told me that if I have allergies, my recipient will also have them – luckily I do not.” 

He also thought about his recipient quite a bit. 

“I felt emotionally invested quite quickly,” said Avi. “I wondered how similar he is to me, does he also have a kid, is he married or have a partner, how long has he been ill? I would love to know how he is doing over time, and I would definitely like to meet him. My friend told me his brother-in-law donated to someone and he and his recipient meet every year.” 

Typically, the transplant centers contact Gift of Life after several months and pass along an update about the patient, which the organization then share with the donor. Donors and recipients within the United States may meet after one year has passed and if both parties agree. 

“When I was going through the process I did a sort of inventory of my life,” said Avi. “I wondered, ‘Is this the most meaningful thing, besides raising my child, that I’m doing to do in my life?’ Maybe it isn’t, but it’s a strange feeling to think that you’re doing something that will have such a profound impact. I just feel lucky that I was able to donate.” 

Avi is an employment class action attorney who lives in Los Angeles, Calif. He spends much of his free time with his son, and also enjoys playing tennis and softball. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine, where he was a brother in the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.