In a deeply emotional meeting last week, a Michigan man who was battling blood cancer learned the identity of the Atlanta man who saved his life.
Bernard Weiner, 70, of Troy, Mich., and Judah Berger, 22, formerly of Atlanta, met Aug. 7 for the first time at the Gift of Life Campus Ambassador Symposium in Boca Raton, Fla. Weiner had received a bone marrow transplant from Berger after a search of Gift of Life Marrow Registry showed that they were a match.
Berger, a former Gift of Life Campus Ambassador, joined Gift of Life’s registry at a swab drive when he was 18. Weiner was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood cancer, and had run out of options. The one treatment left was a marrow transplant. Berger agreed to donate his bone marrow for the life-saving transplant, but due to strict confidentiality laws, neither knew the other’s identity until now.
Now a New Yorker, Berger said his upbringing shaped his decision to donate. He was raised celebrating Jewish traditions, including hosting people who had nowhere to celebrate Friday night Sabbath dinners. “In the Torah it says you should help a stranger 36 times, even though it might be counterintuitive,” he told the Gift of Life ambassadors. “Know that you will make a difference.” Turning to Weiner, he added, “We are living proof.”
Weiner described the complications he experienced after chemotherapy and his transplant, “I am sure Judah’s cells helped me fight that off,” he said. At one point, Weiner was about to receive a transplant from a different donor, only to learn it was called off for medical reasons. He was fortunate to have more than one possible donor in the registry; not every patient can find even one donor. “I guess it was really meant to be,” he said, after embracing Berger. “My family told me to give him a big hug for them.”
Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer attended the symposium to introduce the pair. Singer said he has a special stake in Gift of Life, as his mother-in-law’s life was saved by a donor found through the marrow registry. “My family has been deeply impacted by the work of Gift of Life,” Singer said. “The return on investment of all of your efforts is to save lives.”
The symposium also featured Jesse Horwitz, Hubble Contacts co-CEO and co-founder, who discussed entrepreneurial spirit and corporate responsibility. Last year, Horwitz was named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 annual list of top young entrepreneurs. He helped start America’s first direct-to-consumer subscription contact lens brand in 2016. Hubble is a Campus Ambassador Program sponsor.
The CAP Symposium brought together 90 student leaders from more than 100 colleges and universities in 32 states for a three-day training session. Campus ambassadors play a key role in helping to find matches for those with blood cancer. Transplant doctors tend to seek donors aged 18 to 25 because this demographic produces the most stem cells and is the healthiest population, meaning a better chance of success for the patient.
Since launching in 2014, 361 campus ambassadors have volunteered more than 11,800 hours to add 32,787 people to the registry, resulting in 45 life-saving matches. The CAP leaders will run 500 swab drives during the 2018-19 school year to reach more than 15,000 students, each of whom may get the chance to help save lives.
Since its start in 1991, Gift of Life has grown its registry to more than 308,000 individuals who have volunteered to donate blood stem cells or bone marrow to save a life. In the process, Gift of Life has facilitated more than 15,000 matches for those with a range of blood cancers, resulting in more than 3,300 transplants.
For more information about Gift of Life or the donor-recipient meeting, contact Joe Berkofsky, email@example.com.