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Students involved with their campus Hillel make particularly strong donor candidates for Gift of Life, given their youth (though they must be at least 18), health and greater likelihood of having a similar genetic profile to Jewish patients needing bone marrow transplants. But beyond the bare facts of biology, students at Hillels across the country have proven to be particularly enthusiastic about spreading the word.
Although two interns are hired by the Ohio program each year, trained by Gift of Life staff and given Hillel’s resources and support, the program’s success is due largely to the creativity and motivation of the hundreds of student volunteers at the 21,000-student campus in Athens, Ohio, says Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, executive director of its Hillel. Interns are expected to run at least five “mini-drives” over 13 weeks in such places as student centers, dining halls, large-scale lectures and theater and film events. Between drives, the interns use a dedicated office at the Hillel house to store thousands of swab kits and send back hundreds of completed samples to Gift of Life on a weekly basis.
After their genetic sample is processed by Gift of Life, potential donors confirm by email their contact information and their interest in donation, a step that Feinberg sees as crucial to ensuring that potential donors understand their commitment. If a doctor requests a sample and a donor backs out, “it can give false hope,” says Feinberg.
Although Kahn says she “immediately started freaking out” when she got the call late in her senior year, there was no question over whether to proceed. “There was an immediate connection to my Judaism. I grew up learning about this, about tikkun olam,” Kahn said. “I thought, ‘I have to do this. This is a little girl.’” A girl so little that she was not yet born on the day Kahn’s cheek was swabbed two years before.
Knowing only that her potential recipient was young and suffering from leukemia, Kahn agreed to undergo a confirmatory blood screening for infectious diseases and to check the compatability of her immune system proteins — the human leukocyte antigens.
Kahn’s results came back a strong match.
A self-described “ball of anxiety,” Kahn packed up her room, took her finals early, turned in papers late and rearranged a vacation so that she could fly to Pittsburgh to undergo the donation procedure.
Although most donors are able to give through a four-to-six-hour process called peripheral blood stem cell, or PBSC, in which blood from one arm is filtered for stem cells before returning to the body through the other arm, Kahn’s donation was by needle aspiration through her hip, a process where bone marrow cells are extracted under anesthesia. After her 6 a.m. wake-up call, Kahn was nervous but resolute, and remembers a “huge feeling of relief” when the surgery was over, an hour and a half later. “I didn’t even think about the pain. It was just, Yes, I did this.”
It takes two to three weeks for a donor’s body to replenish the cells. After a month, Kahn was fully recovered and received word that the girl, who now shared a little part of her, was struggling but had accepted the marrow. With the child’s identity kept private, Kahn later wrote the girl’s family a letter, delivered through the registry, to express the overflow of emotions that came with her donation. “I told them, ‘Before, I was just a college student, worried about classes and loans, but now I know the problems in my life are so insignificant.’”
It’s stories like Kahn’s that help fuel the “Got Swabbed?” drives. “We’re trying to create a culture where very few people are not aware,” said Leshaw, adding that when a match occurs, “We’re incredibly proud and happy. The energy takes off.”
For Kahn, who graduated with a degree in multicultural studies and a certificate in Jewish studies, the experience caused her to reevaluate her attitude towards family and faith.
“I’m grateful for my Jewish education,” Kahn says. “It’s one thing to learn about doing mitzvahs and another to have the opportunity. I didn’t choose to be a match, but I chose to be a donor.”
Though she used to find her father’s funeral home business in Cincinnati “depressing,” she now plans to work with him. Confronting a real life-and-death situation through her donation was an epiphany: “My community needs me. I can help people here.”
Contact Blair Thornburgh at email@example.com