Operation is a tie that binds for stem cell donor, recipient

NEW YORK — They were two strangers who had never met, never spoken, never even been told each other's name.

But a bone marrow transplant has given them a connection as real as family.

Anita Spitz-Slade, the 43-year-old woman who received the lifesaving marrow, was waiting on stage at a midtown Manhattan hotel last week to meet the man she referred to as "my donor and my hero."

Zev Steinberg, the donor, recited a silent prayer as he prepared to meet the woman whose life he helped save.

"You and I are now, in the most literal sense of the word, blood relatives," Steinberg then told Spitz-Slade, both of whom are Jewish.

When the two embraced, many in the audience at the Marriott Marquis were brought to tears.

The Long Island wife and mother of two was diagnosed with leukemia in August of 1999 and is now in remission.

Steinberg, a 24-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, had his tissue tested in 1997 while studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

It is unusual for patients with leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and immune disorders to find stem cell donors. Genetic tissue type is matched in an immediate family member only once in every four cases.

As with blood and organ donations, a dissimilar bone marrow match will likely be rejected by the body.

But for those of Jewish descent, the Holocaust, which severed bloodlines, has made finding a match exceedingly difficult.

To address the shortage, the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, which brought Steinberg and Spitz-Slade together and sponsored the June 21 ceremony, has compiled a database of more than 40,000 volunteer donors — mostly Jews.

The foundation, originally known as the Friends of Jay Feinberg, formed in 1991 when New Jersey native Feinberg, then 22, was diagnosed with leukemia and couldn't find a matching bone marrow donor. In a frustrating twist, his two brothers matched each other, but not him.

Leukemia, a form of cancer, is distinguished by the uncontrolled proliferation of certain white blood cells. Patients are given high doses of chemotherapy, but it is the infusion of healthy bone marrow that essentially transplants an entire immune system.

More than 106,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma — which are related cancers — in the United States each year, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Some 60,000 die of the diseases annually.

A small grassroots effort to find a match for Feinberg eventually turned into a worldwide marrow drive. In less than four years, the organization composed of Feinberg, his family, friends and hundreds of volunteers tested tens of thousands of people.

Through the efforts to find Feinberg a donor, more than 100 matches were found for other people stricken with the disease.

But no close match was found for Feinberg, and, despite intensive chemotherapy, his condition quickly worsened.

But in 1995, Feinberg's friends organized one more drive in the then-untested Milwaukee area. At the end of the drive, one of the volunteers, Becky Faibisoff, 16, decided to test her blood despite a fear of needles.

She was the last of about 55,000 people tested and her tissue type was the closest match to Feinberg's.

Feinberg, near death, received the donation and survived.

The foundation that formed to save his life now serves to link leukemia patients with donor matches throughout the world.

Gift of Life's stated focus is to increase the number of Jewish volunteers in the donor pool, but it gladly accepts donations from anyone. Those interested in registering with Gift of Life can do so on its Web site, www.bone-marrow.org

There is a hitch when it comes to soliciting Jews to donate bone marrow or organs. Some believe that the Jewish law against desecrating the body, which is considered sacred, prohibits organ giving.

Dale Mintz, director of women's health for Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America, says this is a myth and that the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, supersedes such concerns.

"It's who we are as Jews, just as a doctor can work on Shabbat if he's called upon to save a life," she says.

Mintz said no part of the body is destroyed in the process of donating marrow or an organ.

The process by which bone marrow is transfused is simple and not particularly painful. Stem cells — which grow marrow — are removed from the donor via a needle inserted into the hipbone. Like blood, bone marrow replenishes itself, allowing a person to donate many times.

A stem cell donor is in and out of the hospital on the same day.

The recipient is then given the marrow through a catheter in a painless process that only takes a few hours.

The issue of stem cell research has received significant government and media attention lately.

President Bush's aides reportedly say he is leaning toward revoking Clinton administration-enacted federally funded stem cell research that uses human embryos for testing. But fellow prominent Republicans including Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) want to continue federal support of such research.

Another less controversial issue was swirling around the hotel.

When Steinberg began speaking to the audience, as he started to refer to the woman he had donated his marrow to, he realized he didn't know her name. He paused, walked across the stage and asked her.

These two people, blood-tied, so close in genetic code, knew so little about one another. Why, then, did Gift of Life wait a year before this emotional meeting?

Dr. C. Norman Coleman, a leading voice in cancer research and a bone marrow donor himself, addressed this issue when he gave the keynote speech at the dinner.

"This is an incredible human experience," he says. "Perhaps the foundation should consider having the donor and recipient meet sooner."

Spitz-Slade wouldn't have missed it for all the world.

"This is one of the most important, meaningful moments in all my life," she said.