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They joined a National Institutes of Health study led by Dr. Sharon Savage of the National Cancer Institute to find the genetic causes for a number of inherited bone marrow diseases. The couple was told the process could take a few years, and by the end there would be only a 50-50 chance that the genetic mutation that caused Ayelet’s illness would be found.
While they were dealing with Ayelet’s tests, hospital stays and a bone-marrow transplant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center — and eventually her tragic passing — researchers at the NIH were working on the genetics in consultation with scientists at the Rockefeller Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
With Poupko in her late 20s, the two figured they could afford to give the NIH study some time before trying for another baby.
“At that point we weren’t ready to roll the dice and take a chance,” Galena recalled. “I think in a strange way it was helpful, because it gave us the time to heal from Ayelet’s death. For both of us that was a good time for mourning Ayelet properly. It took me the full two years to really start thinking about things in a forward-thinking way.”
In the year after Ayelet’s death, Poupko and Galena grappled with their grief, worked on reconnecting with each other and immersed themselves in routine and adventure.
At work, Poupko was busy at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and keeping up the campaign for public pressure to counter Iran’s nuclear program. Galena went back to work at VML, a digital marketing and advertising agency. After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, Galena and some colleagues built a tribute website, TacosforNoah.com, dedicated to the memory of the youngest Sandy Hook shooting victim, Jewish 6-year-old Noah Pozner.
When the 30-day mourning period following Ayelet’s death ended, Poupko and Galena went on a healing trip to Israel, and later they flew to Thailand on a trip Poupko describes as “awesome.”
As longtime pillars of the community of young Modern Orthodox Jews on the Upper West Side, they also leaned on their many friends and family members, whom Galena credits with helping the couple through the mourning process.
They always were eager for word of progress on the genetic front, but Poupko says they tried not to be consumed by it.
“I wasn’t crippled with anxiety,” Poupko said. “I felt like one way or another we would figure out a way to build a family together. I just didn’t know when or how.” But waiting was not easy, and it was made more difficult by inquiries about why the couple wasn’t having more children.
“I’m not exactly a patient person. It was definitely a challenging time for our lives,” Poupko said. “We were very open about it even though it was painful. People who were close to us understood that we were waiting to safely have more children.”
Unlike with most NIH studies, in this one the researchers doing the genetic work were in direct contact with Galena and Poupko, who would call weekly for updates.
The good news finally came on April 11, 2013. Poupko remembers where and when she was when she got the call. After the NIH nurse on the phone told her that Ayelet’s genetic mutation had been found, Poupko broke down, sobbing.
“We had been following up, calling them nonstop, but they had never called us before,” she recalled. “It was amazing. We knew at that moment that we would have that future we’d always wanted.”