Mind, Body & Spirit

Tucsonan donates stem cells twice, enlists fellow Jews in Gift of Life program

 “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

— Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

Tucsonan Bryan Jaret-Schachter relaxes during his second donation of stem cells for a recipient identified by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. Blood from his right arm is fed through a machine to separate out the blood-forming cells, then returned to him via his left arm.

Bryan Jaret-Schachter, a 27-year-old financial analyst in Tucson, picked up the phone at work early one morning in September 2010 and was stunned by what he heard. The caller, a representative from the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (giftoflife.org), told him that he was a preliminary match for a stem cell donation. The recipient would be a 39-year-old male with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The news of a match might surprise anyone, but for Jaret-Schachter it was especially significant. His good friend and former roommate, Richard Sims, had died of complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma earlier that year. When Jaret-Schachter found out the match was for somebody with Hodgkin’s, he says, “I almost fell out of my chair!” Jaret-Schachter would later go on to donate stem cells not once, but twice, for this particular recipient.

The story behind the match, however, goes back to 2009, when Jaret-Schachter was on a Birthright Israel trip (a free educational, first-time trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26). There, he registered with a bone marrow database after hearing a presentation by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, an organization that is especially interested in registering persons of Jewish descent.

“Everyone in our group, 41 in total, agreed to register, participating by getting their cheek swabbed,” he recounts. Even though he knew his friend Sims was not waiting for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, it still seemed to him like an important thing to do. However, Jaret-Schachter admits, “I didn’t expect to hear from them.”

The day Jaret-Schachter returned to Tucson from Israel, he found out that Sims was in the hospital and not doing well. He rushed to the hospital and arrived in time to say goodbye. Sims passed away later that evening. The loss of his friend weighed heavily on Jaret-Schachter, especially in the days following the funeral. “Not many days would go by where I didn’t think about Rich, and how unfair it was for him to suffer through this ordeal,” he reflected in a blog he posted later for the Gift of Life Registry.

The phone call from Gift of Life, coming eight months after Sims’ death, seemed more than mere coincidence. The connection between his friend, his trip to Israel and the chance to save a life was not lost on him. “I’m not an extremely religious person,” he reflects, but “it was hard to deny the irony of the whole situation.” Jaret-Schachter felt this was a unique opportunity to honor the life of his friend, and an opportunity to affirm his ties to the Jewish community.

The stem cell donation, though simpler than a bone marrow donation, would end up requiring an extensive commitment of time and travel from Jaret-Schachter. Gift of Life flew him to New York City in September 2010 for a physical at the facility where the donation would take place. A month later, after five consecutive days of injections to stimulate stem cell growth, Jaret-Schachter traveled back to New York for the procedure, which took about seven hours. The main discomfort, says Jaret-Schachter, was being relatively immobile for that length of time. Fortunately, he’d brought his iPad with him to help pass the time.

Approximately six months after the first stem cell donation, Jaret-Schachter checked in with Gift of Life to inquire if it was safe for him to participate in a blood drive at work. To his surprise, Gift of Life called him back the next day to say the recipient of his original donation needed a follow-up donation. In March and April of 2011, Jaret-Schachter flew to New York twice more to complete the second donation. This time, he brought his work laptop to pass the time.

Jaret-Schachter is especially happy to have been able to help someone through the Gift of Life registry. “Their focus,” he explains, “is to get Jewish people involved, but anyone can donate. So many bloodlines were lost in the Holocaust. If you are Jewish and diagnosed, you are much less likely to find a match.” Last June, Jaret-Schachter flew on behalf of Gift of Life to a Jewish sleep-away camp in Denver, where he spoke to more than 50 counselors, alongside a former camper who had been diagnosed with leukemia. The majority of the counselors joined the registry.

Although Jaret-Schachter is curious about the man who received his stem cells, the donation will remain anonymous on both ends until his recipient passes the one-year mark since his last donation. Jaret-Schachter hopes to meet his recipient at the annual meeting of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation this spring.

After four trips to New York in a span of six months, Jaret-Schachter has no qualms about donating his time and blood. What would he say to people who are reluctant to donate? “You’re giving somebody the chance to live who otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” says Jaret-Schachter. “It’s hard to overcome fears, but it is a tremendous opportunity … I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Maria Ma-Tay Russakoff is a freelance writer living in Tucson with her husband and two sons.