Another Ezer Mizion International Jewish Bone Marrow Registry success story! Jacob is now on his way to becoming a doctor and helping others. Just a few short years ago, his future was not certain at all. Read on as he tells his story.
A perfect stranger saved my life. He didn’t jump in front of a moving vehicle or fend off an attacker. He wasn’t perfect for the reasons one might think, but for my predicament, he was indeed perfect—a 10 out of 10 match, to be exact. I required such a match to survive.
As a senior in high school, my classmates had voted me “most likely to cure cancer.” Ironically, a year later, I found myself lying in a hospital bed, after being diagnosed with leukemia. The conundrum was that I felt fine and was anxious to begin my summer of organic chemistry as part of a combined undergraduate and medical school program. At 19 years old, I was completely unprepared to be diagnosed with cancer, admitted to the hospital, and informed I would need an urgent bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy, all in the same day. I had planned out my life for as long as I could remember, and suddenly nothing was under my control.
Being the youngest of 5 children, I felt confident that I would have a bone marrow donor. I would learn that a full sibling has a 25% chance of being a human leukocyte antigen (HLA)match and, as each of my siblings was eliminated as a possible donor, fear set in. I couldn’t fathom that a complete stranger would be willing to save me, yet that is what my life depended on. The first of 6 matches was found, and relief engulfed me. My “perfect stranger” was chosen because he was a 10-point HLA match, male, around my age, and had tested negative for cytomegalovirus.
From the moment I learned that a 28-year-old stranger from Israel would donate his bone marrow to me, I could not stop thinking about him. What did he look like? I imagined him in each face I saw. I had always expected to spend a large portion of my life in hospitals, but never as a patient, always as the physician. I spent over 100 days as an inpatient and, throughout my long recovery, I often wondered about my donor. Why was he on the bone marrow registry? Why was he willing to undergo bone marrow donation surgery to save me? He would later explain that a young girl in Israel who needed a bone marrow transplant had inspired him to join the registry and, later, I had more insight into his sacrifice, when he referenced the quote from the Talmud, “to save a life is to save the world.”
Each country has its own guidelines for the time frame when willing donors and recipients can learn one another’s identities. In the United States, the rule is 1 year, whereas, in Israel, it is 2 years. I wrote to my donor never knowing more than his age, gender, and country, and he wrote to me under the same conditions of anonymity. I wondered how we would meet given the distance between us, until one day I received an unexpected telephone call, offering me the opportunity to be flown across the country to meet him at a fundraiser. Ten days later, I was on a plane with my parents, feeling excited, thrilled, and nervous.
It was a whirlwind few days. I was asked to prepare a speech, but everything else was kept a secret. The time came for me to put on my suit, and I was whisked off to the event to learn the name of my hero. Never has the appetizer hour taken so long. I searched all over hoping to catch a glimpse of my donor. Unbeknownst to me, he was sequestered in a room upstairs. Eventually, it was time for dinner, and I would finally meet the man whose blood now runs through my veins (my blood type had been O+ but changed to his blood type, A+).
My name was called. I rose and strode to the podium. I expressed my gratitude and appreciation for my donor, and described waiting anxiously for 2 years to thank the stranger who saved my life. As I expected, my mom was in tears, but to my surprise there was not a dry eye in the room. The master of ceremonies approached and reached for the microphone. He spoke my donor’s name and, hearing it for the very first time, I felt exhilarated. Then Royi Horowitz walked through the doors. Gratitude flooded through me, and I gave him a long bear hug. I looked in the eyes of the man who so selflessly and willingly saved my life; a perfect stranger.
Reluctantly, I released him. This man whom I had loved since the day I learned he would give me a future was now right before me. I could finally lay eyes on him and hear his voice. The connection I feel with my donor, Royi, is sacred. For 2 years, I referred to him as my donor, my blood brother, and now I can finally call him by name. Four years later, the connection is just as strong. We are in touch regularly, and he and his wife have even traveled to my parents’ home in California, and met my family. Once a perfect stranger, now he is a dear friend.