Dr. Bracha Zisser devotes her time to Oranit, the cancer patient guest home that she established with ezer Mizion and its steadily growing International Bone Marrow Donor Registry * In a personal interview, she talks about the work she spearheads, escorting families through this challenging period *About her insistence on promoting the idea of expanding the registry of stem cell donors by collecting samples from soldiers as part of their induction process * About the soldiers who report directly from the battlefield to donate stem cells * About the battle to save the life of her late husband Motti z”l. And no, she has no complaints, just a deep longing
It’s afternoon at Oranit-Ezer Mizion, in the heart of Petach Tikvah. Patients and their escorts are busy at various activities, and the place is humming with life, as youngsters and adults try to briefly forget their illness and its everyday challenges. Dr. Bracha Zisser scurries from one person to the next, embracing, showing genuine concern, and asking how each one is doing. She receives us warmly, as she walks among the different rooms, together with a six-year old little boy with cancer. Zisser hunts for the Lego set he had asked for. Only after the set is located and the boy is satisfied does Zisser make herself available for the interview.
Day after day, she comes to Ezer Mizion special guest home and oversees the progress of her life’s work. While other women of her status are whiling away their days in coffee shops or flying abroad on pampering vacations, Zisser has chosen to devote her time and energy to cancer patients. Even after the personal tragedy that she suffered, with the death of her husband, entrepreneur Motti Zisser z”l, she has not let up her efforts. She invests everything into the two massive enterprises that she helped to establish and today directs: Ezer Mizion’s Oranit convalescent home for children with cancer and its International Bone Marrow Donor Registry.
Giving Saba a Shot of Morphine
When Zisser was a girl of 14, her mother’s parents, Saba David and Savta Rachel, moved to Bnei Brak, to live near them. “Saba had bone cancer, and I moved in with them,” she recalls. “I was a young girl, who got up early every morning and tended to her sick Saba. It reached a point that I would even administer a shot of morphine to him, when necessary. Afterwards, I went to school. At around three o’clock, I came home to their house. That went on for about two and a half years.” On Pesach, when she was in 11th grade, her grandfather passed away. The following Shavuot, her grandmother died. “For me, it was like losing parents. I was very attached to them,” she shares. “I don’t think that I lost out on anything by caring for my Saba. On the contrary, I feel that I received so much. Saba was a special person, a very wise man. I really liked to speak to him. I gained a lot from those years.”
At age 20, she married 24-year-old Motti Zisser, who, at the time, was an army officer. She went to Tel Aviv University to study for a B.A. in life sciences. ”I must have acquired my caregiving bent from the time spent living with my ill Saba and caring for him so intensively.” After working two years in the labs at Beilinson Hospital, she started attending nursing school at Tel Aviv University. Later on, she went for a Masters in nursing, too, and then a Doctorate in nursing, specializing in oncology.
Meanwhile, life in the Zisser home flowed happily and peacefully, until the moment they learned that Motti, the father of the family, had cancer of the lymph gland, lymphoma. “Today, it’s considered a relatively mild tumor. There are treatments and the chances of recovery are excellent. But it wasn’t like that then. We’re talking about more than twenty years ago, and it took a long time until the doctors discovered what he had exactly. Precious months slipped away needlessly. When the disease was finally diagnosed, the cancer had already spread extensively.”
How does a young wife feel when she gets this kind of news?
“The sky came crashing down on us. We were young parents with little kids, and it was a real earthquake in our lives. I was working as a nurse in the Internal Medicine ward, so I’d seen patients like this die, and I understood that we had a tough battle ahead of us. But Motti, being Motti, the epitome of optimism, never gave up. He fought like a lion.”
Zisser will never forget that first meeting in the hospital, after the diagnosis. “We sat across from the doctor and she said to Motti, “You are swarming with cancer.” She repeated this sentence a few times. I remember that we sat there and cried. That same day, the treatments started. When we walked out of the hospital, we took a deep breath and made up our minds: “There’s no choice. We’re going to fight.”
They told the older children about the disease. “Rachel was twelve years old, and David was eight. We sat down with them and explained what was happening with Abba. David took it very hard and cried a lot,” she says, her voice cracking. “Once we started with the treatments, we entered a sort of routine. Motti regarded the treatments as if they were a meeting listed in his appointment book. He insisted on going to work, even during that period, and that held him together. After the treatments, we would go home. He would throw up, and then, the next morning, he would get up and go to work. That’s the kind of person he was. He didn’t pamper himself, didn’t compromise, and didn’t allow himself any leniencies,” she says longingly. “It was very aggressive treatment. After we finished the treatments, we thought that was it; the disease is behind us.”
A year and a half later, they were told that, unfortunately, the disease had returned. An urgent consultation with senior doctors abroad yielded the conclusion that only a stem cell transplant could save his life. “That was the first time we had even heard of this option. In Israel, the subject was almost unknown. Motti’s brothers were not a match. We were in consultation with Rabbi Elimelech Firer, who sent us to a noted doctor in Boston.” The Zisser couple left their five little children behind. “Motti was hospitalized in the ward and underwent x-rays and tests. Four days later, Zisser was informed that, sadly, no matching donor had been found to save her husband’s life. “The Jews are an ethnic group with unique genetic characteristics, and their representation in registries around the world is almost nil. The professor summoned me to his office and said, “Listen, there’s no donor for your husband. Go home and hope for the best.” I remember myself sitting there, in shock, and asking him again and again if he’s sure about it. To her husband, who had just emerged from a medical test, she simply said that they were going back to Israel to carry on treatment. “It was absolutely clear to me that we were not giving up.”
In Israel, the medical staff decided to try a self-transplant of Motti’s own cleaned out stem cells. “The doctor told us that this is the last chance. It was just before Yom Kippur. We did the stem cell transplant at Tel Hashomer hospital. To our surprise, the transplant was a success and the patient recovered. It was a huge miracle,” she says, her voice excited, even now, so many years later. “On Purim, we made a big mesibat hodayah, a thanksgiving celebration. Motti got up and shared his emotions with the guests. He said, “I feel that I need to give a korban todah, a thanks-offering.” A joint friend introduced them to Rabbi Chananya Chollak, International Chairman of Ezer Mizion, who spoke of the need of building a guest house for cancer patients and their relatives. “That was how Oranit was born. That same Purim night, we came to the decision. Two and a half years later, the building was already standing.”
As mentioned, Oranit cancer patient guest home was established by Bracha and Motti z”l Zisser, in collaboration with Ezer Mizion, and since then, it has been providing families of children fighting cancer with a supportive haven at their most difficult times. The building includes rooms to accommodate patients and their escorts for overnight stays, music room, Wildlife Pavilion for animal therapy, dining room, and more. Dr. Zisser directs the place and stands at its head.
Two years after Oranit was established, in 1998, Moshe Sehayak z”l, a teenager from Afula with cancer, turned to Zisser to ask for her help in locating a matching stem cell donor to save his life. “This was the second time that I’d heard about the option of a stem cell transplant.” Zisser undertook the challenge, and, together with the Sehayak family and friends, they ran a nationwide stem cell donor campaign, during which samples were collected from 5,000 potential donors. Unfortunately, in spite of the effort, a matching stem cell donor was not found for Sehayak, and a few months later, he passed away. His family, who was keenly aware of the critical need for a bone marrow donor registry, suggested opening a new registry on the basis of the samples that had been collected. The subject was, understandably, very close to Zisser’s heart and she rallied to the cause, together with Ezer Mizion. “They suggested that we found the registry in memory of Moshik, and that was the starting point.” She describes how she was drawn into the project, heart and soul. “We started learning the topic in depth. I left my work as a nurse and got into the picture with all I had. Since then – I’m here.”
Bringing in the Army
After running a number of campaigns to collect more potential donors for the Registry, it was clear to Zisser that there must be a more methodical way to collect samples. That’s when she came up with the revolutionary idea of taking samples from IDF recruits. “I went with this idea to the Department of Defense. I circulated there for three years, and they all explained to me why it’s not logical and why it can’t be done, but I believed in the concept.” Then she turned to the head of the Manpower Division at the time, Elazar Stern. “We met, and when Elazar understood the importance of the matter, he paved the way.”
Zisser describes how the project works: “In the course of the induction process, the recruits pass through the Ezer Mizion station, which Motti donated from his own money. With the help of a system of Ezer Mizion staff, we collect cheek swabs all through the year, and a very high percentage of the recruits choose to join the Registry, which is fantastic. The ones who do not join are mainly those who have medical issues and who, anyway, would not be qualified to donate. The soldiers’ cooperation is amazing, by any measure. Representatives from many different countries have come to learn this model from us. They are amazed at our ability to recruit 50,000 samples of such a wide ethnic variety every year, on a regular basis.
The IDF, Zisser points out, fully collaborates with Ezer Mizion, beginning with the stage of induction, when the sample is taken, and also later on, when a soldier is found to be a good match for a donation. “The IDF makes sure to locate the soldier and gives him a special release for this purpose, even at times of war,” she stresses. She recalls the incident of the soldier who was found to be a match and needed to donate right in the middle of the Protective Edge campaign. “Before donating, every donor is given shots for four days, so as to stimulate the production of stem cells. That soldier had already received two shots, and then, on Motzaei Shabbat, the commander announced that in another few hours, they’d be going into Gaza. But he committed to ensure that the soldier would get back somehow to make the donation. Indeed, on Monday morning, the soldier came directly from Gaza in a helicopter that was vacating wounded to the hospital. He landed on Beilinson’s helicopter pad, donated his stem cells, and returned to the front. The officers cooperate fully and understand the vast importance of the donation.”
The International Bone Marrow Donor Registry has been growing at a dizzying pace, and today numbers 858,125 potential lifesaving donors. “When we established the Registry, we never dreamed that it would grow to its present dimensions. It is the largest Jewish registry in the world, and the largest anywhere per capita. To date, more than 2,500 stem cell transplants have been done, and that is a fact that really excites me.”
Both you and Motti z”l dedicated so much of your time and wealth to doing chessed and saving lives. Many patients were granted new life, thanks to you. Doesn’t the fact that Motti himself died of cancer frustrate you?
“You need to understand this whole enterprise was born from Motti’s illness. From his illness sprouted the establishment of Oranit. When he was sick, they spoke with us of death. The doctors did not give him the slightest chance, and look, we were gifted with another twenty years, during which Motti merited living a full life, marrying off children, and enjoying grandchildren. I am happy that at least during these years, he did not live in fear. Motti never lived like a man who was waiting for the ax to fall. He lived his life to the fullest. He died at age 61 and accomplished in his life what others don’t do in a hundred years, from the aspect of family, happy celebrations, work, and every possible act of kindness. My children say that they were lucky to have a father like nobody else had. So, Motti and I gained another twenty years. I think that he got a lot done during that time. I am sad for myself and for the children, but I have no complaints. My regrets are just for the great loss.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- Every year, about thousands of patients around the world undergo a stem cell transplant. This is a medical procedure intended to cure a list of serious illnesses including: certain auto-immune conditions, blood and lymphatic cancers, bone marrow cancers, hereditary blood diseases, and more.
- In order to do a stem cell transplant, the patient and donor must be genetically compatible. This compatibility is based on the typing of special protein markers found on each of the body cells, known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA). A good match between HLA proteins is the basis of a successful transplant.
- Only 30 percent of patients are able to find a matching donor among family members. 70 percent must search bone marrow donor registries for an unrelated donor.
- Studies show that the chances of a match between a patient and an unrelated donor rise significantly when the donor and the patient share the same ethnic extraction.
- Over thousands of years, the Jewish people have wandered from place to place, but in spite of this, they maintained isolation, assimilated very little, and consequently, preserved their genetic similarity to an unusual degree.
- The genetic similarity among Jews singles them out as an ethnic group that is different from other populations in the world. For this reason, the chances of a patient of Jewish extraction finding a matching donor for a stem cell transplant in registries around the world is less than 5 percent. This finding strengthens the importance of establishing a large Bone Marrow Donor Registry that will serve as a solution for Jewish patients.
- Ezer Mizion’s donor recruitment method used today, which relies primarily on recruiting donors among soldiers in the course of their induction and among National Service volunteers, expands the Registry by more than 50,000 new potential donors every year.
- Twenty years after establishment of the International Bone Marrow Donor Registry, the Registry numbers 855,626 potential donors. Another encouraging statistic is that the lives of 2,569 (!) patients have already been saved thanks to the Registry.
- Scanning the samples taken from the soldiers and sent to the lab for genetic tissue typing costs a lot of money. For that reason, Ezer Mizion is compelled to turn to the public and raise funds for this important purpose.