City of Hope: A match made in … Israel

When Joseph Mandel went to City of Hope in Duarte after his diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) in 2009, he remembers his doctor giving him a very clear message: “If we don’t find you a donor — like, in a year — you might not be here.”

“I was praying every day that they would just find somebody,” said Mandel, 63, of Woodland Hills. “When I put on tefillin, I would always say, “Please HaShem, help me; find somebody for me.”

Somebody turned out to be Nevo Segal, an Israeli who signed up for the international Jewish bone marrow donor registry in 2006 when he enlisted in the Israeli army. Mandel, the son of a Holocaust survivor, finally had a chance to meet his donor on May 10 as part of the 37th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion at City of Hope, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Also meeting each other for the first time at the event were an 8-year-old boy and his 34-year-old British donor.  

For Segal, 25, who was raised in Ramat HaSharon but is currently studying in London, coming to Los Angeles to meet the man he saved in 2010 gave his role additional meaning.

“Until now, it was like a distant entity,” Segal said. “But when I heard that he survived, finally seeing him is great.”

After Mandel received the terrifying diagnosis in 2009, his family immediately began running bone marrow registration drives across Los Angeles at synagogues and churches, including at Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC. 

The five-year survival rate for AML is only about 25 percent, and Mandel has worked hard to make sure that he’s in that group. An avid outdoorsman, he minimized how much television he watched, exercised daily, lifted small weights and created a digital spreadsheet to keep track of the 35 medications he had to take while fighting leukemia. Although the risk of relapse is there — Mandel still has to regularly undergo blood tests — he has regained his strength and even recently went on a skiing trip with his family.

Because transplant recipients must be nearly identical matches with their donors, family members provide the best odds of being a match. But in Mandel’s case, there was no familial match. That meant that he had to rely on international bone marrow registries. The one that saved his life was Ezer Mizion, which has partnered with the Israeli army to collect genetic samples. 

Originally, the registry matched Mandel with Segal’s sister, Rachel, but Nevo was chosen later when it was discovered that he, too, was a perfect match and that he would be a better fit because he and Mandel were male.

Ann Mandel, who already had a husband and a daughter die of cancer, spoke about her son’s survival with a wide grin at the recent City of Hope event. She said that the day her family was notified that a match had been found, before anyone received a call, she had told her daughter that she felt good news was coming.

“I was very excited when he got the match,” she said.

Showing a group that gathered around her the strength that runs in the Mandel family, Ann Mandel rolled up her left sleeve to display the numbers tattooed on her arm from her imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Today, even after the successful transplant, the Mandels continue to host bone marrow registration drives. One of Mandel’s daughters, Falicia, runs drives in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Signing up for the registry merely requires a cheek swab, and donating marrow can be as simple as donating blood.

For Joseph Mandel, the Israel connection is not restricted to the man who saved his life. His wife, Rachel, was born in Israel. They had planned to travel to Israel for their 30th anniversary in 2010; when that was canceled because of Mandel’s illness, they went in 2011 instead.

“Israelis always have each other’s back, no matter what,” Mandel said at the event that brought him together with Segal. “He had my back.”