No one knows better than Mel Cohen the life-saving potential of undergoing a simple DNA screening test.
More than three years ago, suffering from a chronic blood disorder, the Ocean resident had a successful stem cell transplant from an anonymous donor.
Since then he and his wife, Sandy, have made it their “life’s mission” to promote the work of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. The North American donor registry is dedicated to finding matches within the Jewish community; its goal is to reach 300,000 potential donors to add to the international registry.
As part of their mission a Dec. 6 donor drive was sponsored by the brotherhood at his synagogue, Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon. Cohen told his story as others lined up to have their cheeks swabbed.
Cohen had been under treatment since 2001 for his condition, in which the body stops producing healthy blood cells, leaving him open to anemia and serious infections.
“It is a very serious illness, and in 2006 the doctors decided my only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant,” he said.
The best chance for a match is with an immediate family member, but Cohen’s brother was not compatible so doctors turned to the registry. A “perfect match” was found, and he received the transplant in March 2007 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Cohen said he approached Rabbi Cy Stanway in July to ask if a drive could be held at the temple. “He thought it was a great idea,” said Cohen.
“On Yom Kippur I talked about my experience and doing the drive. Then I connected with Tom Gavin, our men’s club president. They got out a number of volunteers and we announced the drive throughout the community. We got a very good turnout for a first effort in the area.”
Mel Cohen retired in 2006 after serving 30 years as executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County. Sandy Cohen is the former director of the Jewish Family Service of Southern Middlesex County.
‘On the bandwagon’
Donors and recipients can meet each other if both parties agree, but, Cohen said, the first year he didn’t feel strong or healthy enough for such a meeting.
The next year he was informed by former New Jersey resident and Gift of Life founder Jay Feinberg that the donor, who lived on Long Island, had come through his foundation. Feinberg asked Cohen if he would like to meet his donor, Matt Rubinberg, at the Gift of Life annual meeting in Manhattan last May.
The experience “was very moving,” said Cohen. “They brought me up on stage and spoke about my donor. Then Matt came out of the audience of 800. The two of us hugged and kissed. Here was the person who saved my life. It was such a mitzva. I can’t say enough.”
Cohen said Rubinberg had initially hesitated when told they had found a matching recipient because he was being married two months later. However, his fiancee, Randi, told him that “it was something he must do.”
Three years later, Cohen said, “Thank God, I’m doing great and I owe everything to Matt and Gift of Life.”
Now on the steering committee of the organization, he is determined to bring drives to synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the region.
Gift of Life has more than 130,000 registered potential donors and needs another 170,000, said Cohen. “I know we can do it if everybody gets on the bandwagon.”