December 18, 2018

Bone Marrow: The best kind of gift

In 2002, Los Angeles native Ronnel Conn was an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. When he heard there would be a bone marrow donor drive at the campus Hillel for a D.C. local in need, he showed up and got his cheek swabbed, because, he said, “It seemed like the right thing to do.” 

After graduation, he moved back to Los Angeles to attend graduate school. And then, on a summer day in 2006, he received a phone call from a representative of Gift of Life (, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based organization that runs the donor drive, and drives like it, all over the country. While there are dozens of worthy organizations that do work similar to that of Gift of Life, the organization is unique in its focus on the Jewish community.

It was a woman on the phone, Conn remembers. “She said, ‘You could be a potential match for somebody.’ I had to first remember that I was in the registry.”

The next step was blood work to determine how good a match he was. “Through the blood work,” Conn explained, “they can determine on a zero to 10 scale what level match you are. I was a 10 out of 10, the highest-level match.” But Conn had his apprehensions.

“I don’t like hospitals,” he said. “I don’t like medical procedures. But I was thinking two things. One, the Jewish tradition teaches us if you can save one life, you can save the whole world. That really resonated with me. Two, whatever fear I am feeling, it is nothing compared to the person on the other end. So I went forward with it.”

Going forward meant daily injections by a nurse of a drug to increase blood-forming stem cells several days in advance of the nonsurgical procedure. Next, he spent a few hours at City of Hope in Duarte, having his blood drawn from one arm, cycled through a machine, and then returned to his body through the other arm, all the while accompanied by someone from Gift of Life’s donor services department. (In about 20 percent of cases, the donor goes through a more invasive procedure where bone marrow is aspirated from the pelvic bone using a needle and syringe, but there is no cutting or stitching and rarely is an overnight hospital stay required.)

All that Conn knew about the intended recipient was that he was a 28-year-old male. Conn, who is now the assistant executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center, was just a few years younger. It could have been one of his buddies.

One year later, Conn was contacted by Gift of Life to find out if he was interested in meeting his recipient. His answer was unequivocal: Yes. If the other party also said yes, a meeting would be arranged. Not long thereafter, Gift of Life flew Conn to New York to meet the recipient at one of the organization’s board meetings. After the emotional meeting, the two men spent several hours at a nearby bar, getting to know each other. Conn learned that the man was a physician. He had been a medical resident, treating first responders following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when another resident mentioned he didn’t look so well and should get checked out. He did, and learned he had leukemia. 

“We have become great friends,” Conn said. “I went to his wedding. He now has a kid. I’ll always remember when I met his mom … at his wedding. She gave me the biggest hug. She said, ‘Thank you for giving my son back.’ I learned after the fact how dire his situation was.”

Currently, Gift of Life counts some 235,000 donors in its database, the majority Jewish, though they welcome and encourage anyone and everyone to register, especially healthy adults ages 18 to 44, who are most likely to yield a match.

These numbers represent tremendous progress since 1991. That was when Gift of Life co-founder Jay Feinberg was diagnosed with leukemia, at the age of 23, and was told by his doctor in no uncertain terms that he would not find a match because of the low number of Jews in existing databases and the fact that so many blood lines were severed in the Holocaust. (Donation of blood stem cells, unlike regular blood donations, has a genetic element.)

Within days of that conversation, Feinberg and his mother, Arlene, founded Gift of Life.

“One of the most powerful things I have witnessed in the world is the power of a Jewish mother,” said Feinberg, now 46. “She, like any parent would, said, ‘I’m not going to let my son or daughter die.’ It’s certainly what she did. We started Gift of Life around my parents’ dining room table. Before we knew it, we got donated office space.” 

Today, Gift of Life has 45 full-time employees nationwide, runs about 1,000 donor drives a year throughout the United States, primarily on college campuses, and has facilitated transplants in more than 2,700 patients all over the world. It took four years for a match to be found for Feinberg himself. But in that time, matches were found for many other patients.

Feinberg is now chief executive of Gift of Life. His mom died earlier this year. In her honor, the organization recently launched the “Arlene’s Vision” fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $4 million and signing up 70,000 new donors. 

Some two dozen foundations and hundreds of individuals support Gift of Life, which brought in and spent approximately $8 million in 2012 (the latest year for which this data is available). Like other tissue banks, the organization also is reimbursed every time a transplant takes place. This covers all of its associated medical expenses. 

Beverly Hills resident Yvonne Hatherill, 53, received a transplant thanks to Gift of Life. 

“Basically, they saved me,” she said. “But they also saved my family.” Hatherill’s twin girls were 2 1/2 when she was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2004. At the time, Hatherill figured she was tired simply because of the demands of being a mom.

Needless to say, Hatherill is a huge advocate of joining the donor database. (You can even request a kit on Gift of Life’s website if you can’t make it to a drive.) 

“I can’t express how important it is,” she said. “The fact that people still think it is going to require this painful surgery, it’s an outdated belief. That’s rarely what happens.

“You do have to go through a medical exam. And they will give you a couple of injections to boost stem cells so when they draw them you have more than normal. But for very little effort on your part, you can save a life. It is that simple.”