All in the family: Couple does a double mitzvah
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All in the family: Couple does a double mitzvah

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David, left, and Ilana Adams donated bone marrow to patients who needed it.

In spring 2002, Ilana Polack and David Adams had some time between classes at Rutgers University, so they stopped into the campus Hillel to get their cheeks swabbed.

Over quickly and just as soon forgotten, that five-minute procedure – part of a registration drive sponsored by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation – would later profoundly affect the couple and the lives of total strangers.

As it turned out, both Ilana and David were matches for desperately ill patients.

In the summer of 2004, Gift of Life informed Ilana that she was potentially a bone-marrow match for a toddler with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), an inherited disorder of the immune system.

“My reaction was pure excitement, because I knew the statistic that people in the registry usually don’t get a call,” said Ilana, the daughter of Martin and Linda Polack of Teaneck, and a graduate of the Moriah and Frisch schools.

A blood test at a local Labcorp confirmed the match, and she didn’t hesitate to follow through.

“I was so ready to do it,” recalled Ilana, who was by then married to David. “You don’t consider not having a baby because of the labor and delivery, right? That’s how I thought of it. If people really understood they were saving a life, they wouldn’t think twice about it.”

Gift of Life sent a car service to East Brunswick to take Ilana to Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. There she underwent a thorough physical and met Shifra, the GOL representative responsible for her case.

“Shifra was incredible,” said Ilana. “I was given her cell phone number and allowed to contact her whenever. She did all the leg work, made all the phone calls, set up all the appointments. Things were done around my schedule, when it was good for me.”

Still a college student at the time, Ilana chose to have her surgery just before Sukkot, when she had already planned to take time off. Using general anesthesia, doctors withdrew liquid marrow from the back of Ilana’s pelvic bones through special, hollow needles. In a few hours, she was up and ready to go home, taking pain medication for soreness over the next few days.

About the ‘Gift of Life’
The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation is an associate donor registry of the National Marrow Donor Program, and a participating member of Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide.

Founded in response to the lack of an organized Jewish registry, GOL succeeded in locating a successful bone-marrow match for West Orange resident Jay Feinberg in 1995, following a four-year search. Because tissue type is inherited, a patient’s best chance of finding a genetic match lies with those of similar ethnic ancestry.

Although the Holocaust devastated the bloodlines of many Jewish families, more than 1,500 transplants have been facilitated since 1991 exclusively from the pool recruited during the campaign for Jay Feinberg.

Gift of Life was the first registry to utilize bloodless cheek-swab testing routinely at donor recruitment drives. It was also the first to establish a Jewish umbilical-cord blood bank and to launch an online registration system. Of the 129,107 people registered with Gift of Life, 3,168 of them registered online via the giftoflife.org website by ordering a simple cheek swab kit in the mail.

GOL maintains formal recruitment partnerships with Jewish campus groups. Having a young base of potential donors means these donors remain in the registry longer, facilitating more transplants over time. All associated costs are assumed by the foundation.

As of the beginning of May, GOL has been responsible for 5,650 matches since 2003; 526 transplants since 2000, and 1,806 donor-recruitment drives in 36 countries.

The following Yom Kippur, Ilana remembers, she had a jubilant heart-to-heart with God. “I said, ‘I know I speak lashon hara [gossip] and don’t honor my parents as much as I should, but cut me some slack.’ I was confident that He was smiling down on me and giving me a free pass that year.”

Around the same time, David turned up as a potential stem-cell match for an older man with leukemia. However, the donation did not take place until last August, when his recipient was medically stable enough for the procedure.

First, David underwent a battery of tests to ensure conditions were perfect. Then, during the week before the harvesting, he received daily injections of a drug to increase his white blood cell count, since stem cells are located in the white cells.

“I hate blood and needles, so I wasn’t sure I could do it – but I thought, how could I not do it?” he said.

At Cornell, he was hooked up to an apheresis machine that extracts blood from one arm, filters out the white cells, and then returns the fluid into the other arm. The process took six or seven hours.

“You’re fully awake,” said David. “Some people opt for medication for the stress; I didn’t, but I should have. I passed out a few times and vomited, and they had to give me an IV and keep me in the hospital a little longer. But not everyone reacts that way.”

Although donors and recipients remain anonymous, GOL sends progress reports to donors every six months.

David’s recipient initially did not do well, but now the 64-year-old is expected to make a complete recovery.

Ilana’s recipient rallied at first, but died two years later at the age of 4. She is almost reluctant to reveal this sad ending, afraid it might discourage potential donors.

“But two more years for a child is precious,” she stressed. “Even if he would have gained just one more week of life, I would have done it.”

She has not had contact with her recipient’s parents. “I never wanted to let them know who I was because I didn’t want them to feel they owe me anything,” she said. David has not met his recipient either.

Now a speech therapist, Ilana readily agreed to talk about her experiences to groups at the request of the foundation. “I definitely would do it again,” she tells her audiences. “It’s an easy mitzvah.”

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