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Walking for life

Bone marrow donor, recipient to meet

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Walkers will honor Ezra Fineman of Fair Lawn, a stem cell transplant recipient.

At the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation’s third annual Walk for Life in Memory of Mel Cohen on Sunday, October 26, a 23-year-old Englewood bone-marrow donor will meet his 43-year-old recipient for the first time since the successful procedure was done, more than a year ago.

These emotional meetings are a highlight of the annual walk, Gift of Life’s CFO, Gregg Frances, said. “Every year at these events we introduce a donor who has never, until that point, met the recipient whose life he or she saved. There’s a one-year moratorium from the date of transplant to the date of meeting, as legislated by the United States.”

The Englewood man, whose identity is under wraps until the Walk for Life, set for Saddle River County Park in Paramus, told the Jewish Standard that he agreed to have his cheek swabbed during a Gift of Life donor drive in Israel.

“About a year later, my college roommate got a call that he was a match for another type of donation, and a couple of weeks later I got a call that I was a bone marrow match. Those were really crazy odds,” said the donor, who graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus.

He admitted that he hesitated to go through with the donation, but others encouraged him to try to save someone’s life. “And it was really easy,” he said. “A great experience. The procedure was a one-day thing, and it was done.”

He and his recipient corresponded, anonymously, and then they talked on the phone after the one-year moratorium was up.

“This is one of the most powerful moments some people may experience in their lifetime,” said Marti Freund, Walk for Life’s coordinator. “This annual walk is a critical fundraising initiative for Gift of Life, but the best part is getting to witness such a beautiful scene, when the donor and the recipient meet face-to-face for the first time.”

The Englewood donor plans to join in the walk, as do brothers Yigal and Eli Sklarin of Teaneck, both of whom donated bone marrow.

Funds raised at the event are used to add new donors to the registry – it costs $60 to process each cheek-swab sample. The organization’s goal is to sponsor 1,000 new donors in memory of Mel Cohen, who was the executive director of Jewish Family & Children Services of Monmouth County for 30 years.

Mr. Cohen was diagnosed with a bone marrow disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome, and in 2007 he received a bone marrow transplant from a stranger who had registered with the Gift of Life. “Mel spent the rest of his life offering hope and optimism to other transplant patients,” Mr. Frances said.

One of the teams participating in this year’s walk will be Team Ezra, sponsored by Congregation Avahat Achim of Fair Lawn. The 75 people on Team Ezra will walk in honor of 5-year-old Ezra Fineman of Fair Lawn, who has had two stem-cell transplants since being diagnosed with a rare primary immune deficiency when he was five months old.

With the help of Gift of Life, Ezra’s parents conducted a worldwide search to find a matching donor. Through the little boy’s Gift of Life Donor Circle, more than 6,600 people have joined the registry, and matches have been found for 165 other patients who need a bone-marrow transplant.

“We don’t receive governmental funding,” Mr. Frances said. “All the funding we receive is from private contributions, a few grants, and events like this one.”

The cost of participating is $30 for advanced registration or $35 on the day of the walk. Students can participate for $15. “Virtual walkers” can sign up to support the event for $30 and receive a t-shirt. More information is available at www.giftoflife.org/walkforlife.

The nonprofit organization, based in Boca Raton, Florida, is dedicated to facilitating bone-marrow and blood stem-cell transplants for patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and other blood-related diseases. The Gift of Life registry includes some 245,000 samples and has facilitated more than 2,800 transplants.

“We’ll have a table at the event for those who haven’t joined the registry,” Mr. Frances said. “Anyone from 18 to 60 years old can be tested.”

The walk is scheduled for 10 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. and will include food, music, a raffle drawing, and children’s activities. The welcome ceremony, where the donor and the recipient will meet for the first time, is set for 10:45.

Mr. Frances explained that the walks are held in areas where Gift of Life has the largest constituencies. “We celebrate the communities that help us over the course of the year, and we try to add one city per year,” he said. “Creating awareness is the biggest thing we hope to get out of these events.

“We think there is no greater cause than trying to save a person’s life.”

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