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Marrow donor and her overseas recipient form a close lifelong friendship

Jun 04, 2024 by Gift of Life Donor Story

When Elyse (Allen) Rouhi went to the 2002 United Jewish Communities Conference in Washington D.C., she expected it to be meaningful but had no idea it would have a momentous impact on her, her family, and on a family in Germany she didn’t even know existed.

“I had visited Israel in 2000 and had an amazing, lifechanging experience,” said Elyse. “Then I had the chance to go to this national conference, I felt like something was pulling me to it, but it cost almost as much as my trip to Israel. I thought, ‘I can’t do it.’”  Her friend, Eric, who heard about her dilemma, chose to help out, and Elyse was on her way to D.C.

“I was walking around the conference with my friend, Michelle, and as we passed a room, someone inside said, “Come in! Come in and swab!”  We asked, “What are you talking about?”  The volunteers for Gift of Life quickly explained that a blood stem cell or marrow transplant can save the life of a blood cancer patient, so Elyse and Michelle swabbed their cheeks and joined the registry.

They went back to the conference and put swabbing and the registry out of their minds. Eighteen months later, a coordinator from Gift of Life’s Donor Services Department called Elyse with some exciting news!

“I didn’t quite remember swabbing at first,” said Elyse. “But when they told me that I was the only match for a 7-year-old boy with leukemia, and that by donating marrow I would give him the chance for a cure, I said, ‘Yes, of course, just tell me what I need to do.’”

Elyse’s marrow collection in November 2003 was arranged at a hospital in Southern California. Marrow contains the hematopoietic stem cells needed for the transplant, and is collected from the back of the hip bone. Afterwards, her cells were carried by a courier to Germany, where an anxious family was awaiting their arrival. The transplant was completed by an infusion, similar to the way a blood transfusion is done.

Then the wait for news of her recipient began. In the United States, donors and recipients must remain anonymous for the first year before they can meet, but in Germany, there is a two-year waiting period.

“My boyfriend at the time started calling my recipient ‘Destiny’, so that’s how we referred to him for two years,” she said. 

“One of Destiny’s parents sent the first email to me, and my stepmom, Sally, who happens to speak German, was able to translate emails back and forth for us,” said Elyse. “They sent me some pictures of him, and it was just amazing!”  Although he is happy for her to share their story, her recipient has asked to remain anonymous for now.

For several years, Elyse, her recipient, and his family kept in touch, and in 2015, they learned that Destiny’s older brother had written a play about what the family went through during Destiny’s illness; it had won an award and was being produced and performed. He emailed the script to Elyse, Sally translated the entire thing, and some of the family got together to read it through. 

“My family and my best friend, Karen, decided we would go to Germany to see the play,” said Elyse. “It was an incredible trip! I met Destiny in person for the first time, Karen and I stayed at their family home, both families went out to dinner a few nights, and we felt like part of the family.”

Destiny’s brother is a few years older and remembers that period in their family life clearly.  Destiny became ill when he was four, but the treatment he received at first masked the leukemia, so it took doctors several years to figure out his diagnosis. It was a very difficult time for all of them.

“When we went to the play, I got to sit next to Destiny, which was kind of surreal because we were seeing his life story unfold on stage,” said Elyse. “I’m so glad my stepmom Sally was able to translate it for us before seeing it in person, so we understood what was happening.”

“When we were leaving Germany, it was very emotional, and we weren’t sure when we’d see them again, as it’s a long way to travel,” said Elyse. “Destiny took me aside and said, ‘There are few things in life that are perfect, but this was perfect.’ We hugged each other and cried!”

They did not have long to wait for a reunion, though. The year after her visit to Germany, Elyse welcomed Destiny, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend to California for a visit. Then, in 2017, Elyse got married to Rachid while his mother was visiting them from Morocco. Destiny and his brother flew from Germany to California to celebrate with them.

“My husband and Destiny’s brother talk on WhatsApp all the time,” said Elyse. “My stepmom, Sally,  emails with his dad, and I keep in touch with Destiny often. Our families are very connected now.”

“I want to help others understand that donating marrow or stem cells impacts so many people,” she said. “My sister, Samantha, and I have volunteered for years with Gift of Life to help with the Los Angeles Gala, fundraising events, and donor recruitment drives.”

Not only has Elyse had the chance to give the gift of life to someone, but she has also found an extended family through her relationship with her recipient. That’s a gift she genuinely hopes other people will have the chance to experience.

Elyse was an elementary school teacher and librarian for many years, and now she and her husband sell Mediterranean food at local farmer’s markets. Gift of Life thanks her both for being a marrow donor and also an incredible volunteer in support of our mission.

Destiny is now in his late twenties, settling into his career, and looking forward to a long, healthy and happy life.