Andrew Keene

Donating stem cells: A master class in peoplehood

A microscopic piece of blood-matter is the ultimate reminder that we are connected at a cellular level. The rest is just noise
Mid-donation process at New York Blood Center (Photo Credit: Andrew Keene)
Mid-donation process at New York Blood Center. (Andrew Keene)

“Just got word that the patient received your cells and everything went well” was the text message I had been anxiously awaiting for several days. Nine weeks earlier, while waiting for an Uber in Washington, DC, I received a call from an unknown number. On the other end was a representative from Be the Match National Marrow Donor Program, who informed me that a newly diagnosed cancer patient was in need of a stem cell transplant, and I was his closest match.

This phone call started what would become some of the most meaningful, reflective, emotional, and at times spiritual weeks of my adult life. It would also confirm what I already knew to be true — we are all connected in ways we don’t fully understand, and we all have an obligation to each other that we cannot fully define. 

10 years ago, I attended NFTY Convention in Los Angeles, California, where one of the program spotlights was on Gift of Life [Marrow Registry], an organization with proud connections to the Jewish community whose mission is to swab eligible donors in hopes of finding stem cell matches for patients battling blood cancers. At the time it seemed important, a bit mysterious, but nonetheless easy. When I returned home to Milwaukee, I ended up swabbing with Be the Match, another Marrow Registry in the US with a similar mission. It’s a 15-second self-administered cheek-swab that can be returned by mail.

When Be the Match called in April, most of the details were fuzzy. I couldn’t remember: the difference between bone marrow and stem cells, which was similar to a blood transfusion and which was an outpatient operation, how painful it was, what the chances of success were, and about 100 other questions that would cross my mind in the ensuing days. Turns out, most people I talked about this with, even those who had swabbed, did not know many of the details.

In the intervening weeks, I would participate in a series of health screenings, blood work, a physical exam, and some paperwork — all aimed at ensuring the best outcome for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient relying on my stem cells in a few short weeks. I also did a lot of research — about how common blood cancers are, including their prevalence in the Jewish community, how the stem cell transplant process works, and why it is effective in treating blood cancers.

When the day finally came, I felt calm and ready, armed with snacks and entertainment, confident in the science, understanding of the risks (very, very low, by the way), and emotionally ready to enter into a relationship-of-sorts with someone I knew nothing about, and may never meet. The team at the New York Blood Center made the process as smooth and painless as possible, even for someone who as an adult stresses about needles in any form. 

But when my iPad wouldn’t connect to the WiFi and my Airpods wouldn’t stay in my ears, I had the rare opportunity to sit and think — not for a few minutes but for almost eight hours. As the bag hanging from the IV over my right shoulder started to fill with stem cells, I kept coming back to the unexplainable sensation of connection. In our current world of hyper-partisanship, polarization, eroding civil discourse, and social media echo chambers, all of which drive us apart and put up insurmountable barriers between communities, a microscopic piece of blood-matter has the power to slice through it all. It was, and still is, the ultimate reminder that we are connected at a cellular level. The rest is noise.

That connection also transcends geography. Just a few days after my stem cell donation, a friend of mine shared that a member of their extended community in London is urgently searching for a stem cell donor to treat a rare blood cancer called myelofibrosis. Their synagogue is organizing swab drives, just like the one I participated in 10 years ago, but a match is just as likely to be found in Los Angeles as London, just as likely in a complete stranger as in a neighbor. It further proves how connected we are, and how important it is to swab.

It is also the Jewish thing to do. Many of us know the line from Talumud: “kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh,” often translated “All Israel is responsible for one another.” But when we look at the word “areivim,” there’s a deeper meaning stemming from the root “to guarantee” — where the “areiv” is a guarantor, like in a loan, who promises to pay if we are not able to do so. Many of us fall short in our responsibilities and no doubt at times in our responsibility to one another. But when we approach our relationship to people and humanity as a contract to which we are automatically a party, we are Jewishly obligated to serve as “guarantors” for one another. A quick cheek swab is one meaningful way to make good on that social contract.

The Jewish people gather — for conferences, for worship, to celebrate, to learn, and to protest. Take a look at your calendar — if there’s a gathering of your organization or community in the coming weeks or months, I encourage you to seek out your national bone marrow registry and collect swabs. In the United States, that could be through Gift of Life, and around the world through a similar affiliate of the World Marrow Donor Association. We can only hope that our Jewish communal gatherings are life changing for those who participate, but they also have the potential to be life saving –  for someone around the corner, or around the world. 

About the Author
Andrew Keene serves as Vice Chair, Finance of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Deputy Chair of the Shlichut Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Andrew lives in Washington D.C. is a strategy consultant with a focus on data-informed communications and public outreach.
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