Saving a life, fixing the world
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Saving a life, fixing the world

Doctor hopes for stem cell donation through registry drive

Barbara Buxbaum and Judy Fine-Edelstein
Barbara Buxbaum and Judy Fine-Edelstein

If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.

The Talmud is massive — there are two versions, the Babylonian one has more than 2,700 pages, and those pages are filled not only with abstract, abstruse legal arguments but also with pithy aphorisms, as well as all sorts of other verbal flourishes.

But it’s fair to say that the saying about the importance of saving one life, about the entire world that one life encompasses, is among the Talmud’s most famous.

Saving a human life seems like it would be difficult. How do you do that? Fight fires? Perform emergency surgery? Stop a war?

Those would be great things to do, but there’s an easier way.

Get your cheek swabbed. Not swabbed in an intrusive, up-your-nose way, as if it’s a test for covid. No, just a gentle Q-Tip brush of every quartile of your mouth, so four little moth’s-wing touches. Then, if you’re doing it at home, you put the swab in an envelope and mail it back — postage is provided — and wait.

Every one out of approximately 430 or so would-be donors is a match. After other testing to confirm that match, and to make sure that other factors don’t rule that person out, the donor is hooked up to a machine that draws blood, removes the stem cells it needs, and then returns the rest of the blood to the donor. It takes an hour or two.

It doesn’t hurt. It’s not intrusive. And it can save a life.

The registry will match any recipient with any donor; drives are held both to help everyone but also more specifically to help one person who is in immediate and often desperate need of a match.

The drive that’ll be held on Sunday at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, and online until a match is found, is for Judy Fine-Edelstein.

Dr. Fine-Edelstein really does contain worlds.

Judy and Barbara Fine grew up first in Flushing, Queens, in a two-family house they shared with their mother’s parents, and then in a larger, one-family house in Bayside, as Judy’s two-year-younger sister, now Barbara Buxbaum of Chappaqua, said.

Judy was the kind of older sister every younger kid wants; “sweet, bright, energetic, and loving,” as Barbara said, and also outgoing and emotionally generous. “She has a real spark,” Ms. Buxbaum added. “She can start a conversation with anybody.”

Judy Fine left Queens for Boston, where she graduated from BU, worked in healthcare, eventually in a head trauma center, and then decided to go to medical school. “I have a strong image from when she worked there,” Ms. Buxbaum said. “She worked with people who were severely brain injured. She really got close to them. She treated them with respect and love. She was playful with them. I was in awe of her.

“I watched her connection with one of the patients, who was in his 20s. He’d been in a motorcycle accident. I don’t know how much he was aware of, but she treated him like any other person. She was so animated with him. The connection was remarkable.”

Dr. Fine went to medical school at Tufts, and specialized in neurology; her most recent position was as chief of neurology at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

When she was a resident, she met a young man doing his residency in urology. She and Robert Edelstein got married 30 years ago, and they had two children, Ben, who is 27 now, and Emily, who is 25. Dr. Edelstein is a surgeon; he also plays many musical instruments. Beyond that, he is a luthier; he makes stringed instruments. “He also makes watches,” Ms. Buxbaum said. “He has manual dexterity and such patience, and such attention to detail. I am in awe.”

Their lives went on. The sisters’ parents, Eugene and Ruth, continued to flourish in Queens; Judy and Barbara remained close, visiting each other frequently as their families grew. Dr. Fine-Edelstein continued to be passionate about her work. Eugene Fine was diagnosed with maxillary sinus cancer; it could have been disastrous, but “he had the right doctor, and he was saved.” Barbara Buxbaum had cancer; she recovered. One of her closest childhood friends, Betsy Blank, died of cancer on Judy’s birthday, and it hit Barbara hard — she’d been one of Betsy’s most devoted supporters — but life went on.

Emily Edelstein, Judy Fine-Edelstein, Ben Edelstein, Rachel Starr, and Robert Edelstein, at Rachel and Ben’s recent wedding.(Berit Bizjak/imagesbyberit)

Meanwhile, Dr. Fine-Edelstein, who was working really hard, was deeply involved with her husband, her children, and her community, and was finding excitement and challenge in her music, started coughing. And coughing. And then coughing some more. “She didn’t really check it out,” her sister said. “Maybe in a cursory way, through colleagues, but not in-depth.” She was busy.

Covid hit, and like so many other physicians and other healthcare professionals, Dr. Fine-Edelstein pivoted. “She was working in neurology, but then she started to help covid patients. Some of it was telemedicine, and some of it was in person. And she kept coughing, and I started thinking ‘This girl has covid.’

“But it was leukemia.” And the diagnosis was the day before her birthday, and five years to the day after Ms. Buxbaum’s friend Betsy died.

Dr. Fine-Edelstein underwent treatment. It’s brutal, but it seemed to work. She went into remission. During that time, her son, whose plans included a wedding that had been postponed, rescheduled it for as soon as his mother was able to celebrate with him.

The wedding of Ben Edelstein and Rachel Starr, like most covid weddings, was far smaller and less overtly fairy-tale than it would have been; only parents, siblings, and grandparents could be there. (All of the couple’s grandparents are alive, although one set of them live on the West Coast and could be present only on Zoom, like many other close family members.)

The joy was palpable, Ms. Buxbaum said; it pulsed over Zoom. It had its own claim to fairy-tale status.

And then Dr. Fine-Edelstein relapsed. “It’s devastating news,” her sister said. She’s back in the hospital now, undergoing more extremely harsh treatment to prepare her for the stem cell transplant, should it happen. “Judy has held up really well,” Ms. Buxbaum said. “She is careful about wearing her mask and avoiding germs, and she is remarkable in terms of positivity.

“When she got the relapse news, she invited everybody to gather in her house. Me, my husband, our parents, Gail and her husband” — that’s her son’s new in-laws, Gail and Michael Starr. “We hugged and we cried — and we also laughed, and we barbecued.

“It was lovely. It was a celebration of life.

“Like anyone else who would be going into the hospital, she was fearful, of course. But she is the type of person who also is always thinking ‘I will be bored. So I will need to bring my cello.’ ”

So she did. Cellos are not usually welcome in hospitals, Ms. Buxbaum said, but her sister’s is.

Gail Starr of River Vale also is a physician; she’s a radiologist affiliated with Hackensack Meridian. She and her family are longtime members of B’nai Israel.

Dr. Starr stresses how important it is to find a match for a stem cell transplant. Because of the way genetics work, it’s generally easier to find a match within a patient’s ethnic group; in this case, it’s Ashkenazi Jews. And the search centers on people from 18 to 35 years old, because “they tend to be the healthiest, and their stem cells are most plentiful,” she said. “People of any age up to 60 can donate, but more than 80 percent of donors end up in that age group. The clinical outcome is likely to be better if the donor is younger.”

There are many registries, but the one that Dr. Fine-Edelstein is using, Gift of Life, focuses on Ashkenazim. “If you end up being selected as a donor, any expenses related to travel or any physical that you might have will be covered,” Dr. Starr said. “Gift of Life is an amazing organization.”

Families can’t always provide matches, she said; Ms. Buxbaum would love to donate her own stem cells to her sister, but she’s an imperfect match because of her age, her medical history, and the fact that siblings generally can provide no more than a 50 percent match. More would be better; counterintuitively, better often can come from strangers.

Then she moved from the general to the specific. “Judy is a very special person,” Dr. Starr said. “She has a huge heart, she is a wonderful physician, and above and beyond that she helps anyone and everyone in need. She’s currently helping several friends and neighbors navigate their own cancers. She pivoted during the pandemic to help others. She’s a loving daughter, sister, mother, aunt, cousin and friend. She is an all-around terrific person.

“This is a difficult time, but we remain hopeful,” Dr. Starr said.”

Lenny Mandel of West Orange is the cantor at B’nai Israel. (“I’m also the chaplain for the Livingston fire department,” he said.) He’s known the Starrs for a very long time, and he performed Ben and Rachel’s wedding. He’s funny and warm and open-hearted; he loves the Starrs, thinks that Ben is good enough for Rachel, and becomes deeply serious when he talks about Judy Fine-Edelstein and her need for a stem-cell match.

Getting tested is “a no-brainer,” Cantor Mandel said. said. “It’s not like you’re giving somebody a kidney. They’re not cutting you open.

“This is really a chance to save a life. And you don’t really even have to do anything.

“He who saves one life saves the whole world. This is really what this is all about. So why not do it? And it’s not just about Jews. Every person should be aware that they have the chance to make a difference in someone’s life.

“You can be as spiritual as you want. You can be as observant as you want. But this is not about making the way you say the Shema perfect. It’s about tikkun olam. It’s about making the world more perfect.

“It’s like the old song,” Cantor Mandel said. “ ‘We are the world. We can make a better world, just you and me.’

“Every person who does this swab makes this world a better place.”


Who: The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry

Again who: Asks that all healthy people from 18 to 35

What: Either go to Congregation B’nai Israel, 53 Palisades Ave. in Emerson

When: Sunday, July 25, from 10 a. m. to 1 p.m.

OR

What: Order a kit (it’s free both to receive and to return) from giftoflife.org/Judy

Why: For a swab test to see if you’re able to donate stem cells to Dr. Judy Fine-Edelstein or anyone else you might match.

Note: You can register if you’re over 35, but there’s a $60 fee.

For more information: Call B’nai Israel at (201) 265-2272.

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