Jewish Journal

Blood Brothers: How a gift of lifesaving bone marrow united two strangers

Hospitals get crash course in Jewish observance

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Posted on Apr. 24, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Yosef Eliezrie, left, and Moshe Price. Photo by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Although they live more than 12,000 miles apart, Yosef Eliezrie and Moshe Price have a lot in common. Eliezrie, 21, is a Los Angeles yeshiva student preparing to become rabbi, like his father. Price, 24, studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva. His father is also a rabbi. The two are not related, and until this year, they had never met. Yet the same blood runs through their veins.

In October 2006, Eliezrie received a bone marrow transplant provided by Price. It was his only hope for survival after a recurrence of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This month, Eliezrie got the chance to meet Price in person, thank him for his lifesaving gift and embark on a unique new friendship.

At the time of the transplant, however, neither man knew how much they had in common. Bone marrow registry protocols prevent donors and recipients from learning anything about one another beyond age and gender. After a year, the donor or recipient can request contact information, but the other must agree before any information is released.

After the prescribed period, both Eliezrie and Price independently contacted their registries to initiate contact. The two were united first by phone, then met face-to-face in a private gathering April 7.

"It was amazing," Eliezrie said. "It was one of the greatest days of my life."

The following day, the pair visited the physicians and medical staff at Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), where Eliezrie's transplant had been performed.

"As staff, we get caught up in day-to-day demands," said Dr. Steven Neudorf, one of Eliezrie's principal physicians. "Seeing Yosef and his donor together puts things in perspective and reminds us of why we do this work."

Dr. Leonard Sender, Eliezrie's doctor and the medical director for both UC Irvine's Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Cancer Institute at CHOC, showed Price where his bone marrow cells had been delivered and the small oncology intensive-care unit where Eliezrie spent almost a year.

"He's someone who did something selfless in a selfish age," Sender said.

After the hospital event, Price, Eliezrie, physicians, family and friends participated in a seudat hodaa, a meal of thanksgiving, hosted by Eliezrie's parents, Stella and Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie. The senior Eliezrie is director of the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda.

"Judaism considers doctors to be agents of God," Rabbi Eliezrie had said earlier at CHOC. "This hospital was an agent of God. May the bone marrow transplant team see tremendous success and have the fortitude to continue this lifesaving work."

Yosef Eliezrie's odyssey began in the summer of 2005. At the time a Yeshiva student in Morristown, N.J., he was anticipating a trip to Lithuania to assist with Chabad's outreach to the Jewish community of Vilnius. Eliezrie had felt "fluish" for about a month prior to his departure and visited a doctor in New York just before leaving. The doctor said Eliezrie had bronchitis. So despite his fever, Eliezrie went ahead with his trip.

But he grew sicker and weaker with each day and soon went to a clinic, where doctors suspected -- but couldn't confirm -- that he had leukemia. Eliezrie flew home and went straight from the airport to the UC Irvine Medical Center to see Sender, the pediatric hematologist/oncologist who had successfully treated his brother for cancer seven years earlier.

Within an hour, Sender had diagnosed Eliezrie with AML. Less then two days later, Eliezrie's condition severely deteriorated, and he was put on a ventilator to control his breathing.

"He was extremely ill," Sender said. "We weren't sure if he would make it."

Doctors eventually stabilized Eliezrie, and in the following months, he endured five rounds of chemotherapy and countless infections, but by Passover, Eliezrie was considered to be in remission.

During Eliezrie's chemotherapy, Sender wanted to identify a potential bone marrow donor in the event that the cancer recurred. Family members have a 30 percent chance of being compatible donors, but neither Eliezrie's parents nor any of his five siblings were a match.

Sender contacted the National Marrow Donor Program, but none of the program's 7 million potential donors were compatible, either. However, through the program's partnership with registries around the world, two possible donors were identified by Ezer Mizion, the national bone marrow registry of Israel: Moshe Price and his sister.

The largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world, Ezer Mizion lists more than 338,000 potential donors. The organization's registry has grown dramatically in recent years as a result of nationwide donor drives and voluntary testing routinely offered to new Israel Defense Forces recruits. However, only about 60 percent of those who contact the registry find a potential match, according to Ofra Konikoff, chief bone marrow transplant coordinator for Ezer Mizion, who traveled to the United States to facilitate Eliezrie and Price's meeting.

Sender's fear came to pass in August, when he discovered that Eliezrie's cancer had recurred. Bone marrow transplantation was Eliezrie's only option.

Ezer Mizion contacted Price, who underwent additional tests that confirmed his compatibility as a donor. Eliezrie then began 10 days of conditioning chemotherapy and radiation, a brutal regimen designed to destroy his bone marrow and prepare the body to receive foreign cells.

On Oct. 18, physicians extracted bone marrow from Price's hip bone during a two-and-a half-hour surgery. The procedure can sometimes be done through the process of aphaeresis, where the donor's blood is removed through a needle in one arm, passed through a machine that removes certain cells and is returned through the other arm. The donor first undergoes five daily injections of a drug that increases the production of blood-forming cells.

A courier took the package of Price's cells directly to the airport and flew to California to deliver it to CHOC.

Eliezrie received the transplant on Oct. 19; he then he spent 55 days in isolation, where only a few family members could visit.For the next six months, Eliezrie experienced the chemotherapy induced pain and nausea, along with bouts of infections caused by graft vs. host disease, a common complication following bone marrow transplantation. However, he slowly began to recover.

"Generally, he's done really well. He's had an occasional setback, but the further out he gets, the better he's done," Sender said. In cases of bone marrow transplantation, "we don't say someone is 'cured,' but I tell him to enjoy life and make plans for the future."

Eliezrie has resumed his studies, transferring to the Chabad yeshiva in Los Angeles in order to be closer to his family and his doctors. As soon as he was able, he requested to contact his bone marrow donor.

"It was amazing," he said about the experience of meeting Price. "It was one of the greatest days of my life. He is not only physically a perfect match but spiritually, also. That's an even greater miracle."

A Bikur Cholim Blood Drive will take place at Nessah on Sunday, May 4 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Please make appointments at www.bikurcholim.net or call (323) 852-1900.

For information about how to register as a potential bone marrow donor, visit www.marrow.org

Hospitals Get Crash Course in Jewish Observance

When Yosef Eliezrie was admitted to UC Irvine Medical Center and later to Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) for treatment of acute myelogenous leukemia, neither institution realized they would be receiving a crash course in Jewish observance. However, after more than two years of exposure to the Eliezrie family and their Chabad community, staff in both hospitals learned about the nuances of kashrut, witnessed what it meant to be Sabbath observant and some even started taking Torah classes.

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, Yosef's father and director of the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, said the staff at both UCI and CHOC "bent over backwards" to accommodate the family's religious practices.

"This wasn't Cedars-Sinai. They'd never had a frum [Orthodox] patient," he said. "We did a lot of meshuggeneh [crazy] things in these hospitals."

Dr. Leonard Sender, Yosef Eliezrie's doctor and the medical director of the cancer centers at both hospitals, concurred with the elder Eliezrie's assessment.

"They tried to find any Jewish doctors that they could get to put on tefillin. They can't help themselves," he said.

Sender, who identifies as a Reconstructionist Jew, declined the tefillin offer, but said that the Eliezries' presence presented a valuable cultural learning opportunity for physicians and staff.

Every Shabbat, Yosef Eliezrie eschewed lights, television or other electronic devices. He would pray with family members or fellow yeshiva students, often receiving more than 20 visitors in the course of a single day.

"They saw a kid who was proud and comfortable as a Jew," said his father. "He was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis, but he was also tech savvy." (Yosef designed the Web site HelpSderot.com from a hospital bed while being treated for shingles.)

Each week, a van would deliver food prepared for the Eliezries by Los Angeles and Long Beach Chabad families.

"You could fill a country with the food they brought," Sender said.

"We had a remarkable support system," Eliezrie said. "Both hospitals saw the overwhelming sense of community that surrounds us."

Simchat Torah fell while Yosef Eliezrie was critically ill at CHOC. As he lay in his hospital bed, yeshiva students danced around his bed with a Torah. He said that out of respect, hospital staff even set aside a special room for the Torah to be placed when it wasn't being used.

After a discussion between Rabbi Eliezrie and Dr. Eugene Spiritus, UCI Medical Center's chief medical officer, the rabbi began teaching a Torah class at the hospital to Jewish faculty, students and physicians -- including Spiritus. It became a monthly session, which is attended by more than a dozen people and has been going for two-and-a-half years.

A new Torah was started in Eliezrie's UCI hospital room, with a scribe present to write the first words of the text. First, there was a service.

"Yosef had an aliyah, and I had an aliyah...," Spiritus said. And, of course, Spiritus was asked to don tefillen, something he hadn't done since the morning of his bar mitzvah. "One of the rabbis told me, 'You understand, it's God working through your hands.'"

Sender said the exchange of ideas and learning went in both directions. "They met other families who were Hispanic, who were indigent, who were highly educated and not very educated .... They had Filipino nurses and Caucasian nurses and ... Muslim doctors.... The hospital nurses and doctors got a glimpse into the world of Lubavitch Chabad Judaism, and hopefully, they, in turn, got a glimpse into the real world issues we face in taking care of all people."

It appears both parties were affected by what they witnessed. "We learned the remarkable dedication of the medical staff in the preservation of life," Eliezrie said. "These are people who truly care about saving human lives."

-- NSS

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