[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
David Klein is a familiar face around Louisville. A secular Jew in his fifties, who has good relationships with all the rabbis in town, he is a community leader, serving on the Board of Jewish Community of Louisville, co-chairing its Planning and Allocations Committee, taking an active role with Gilda’s Club and more.
Elchonon Reizes is a Chasidic Jew from New York City. Now in his early twenties, he is a rabbinic student at Yeshiva University and plays some keyboard at events like Chanukah and Purim parties and bar mitzvahs. He is single and the oldest of nine children.
It seems unlikely that their paths would ever cross, but indeed they have. In fact, their lives have become intertwined and they have forged a very strong connection that will last throughout their lifetimes.
In 2001, David began his struggle with refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – a battle that has spanned most of this decade and nearly cost him his life. In 2006, Elchonon became David’s angel, the bone marrow donor who restored David to health.
Elchonon did not set out to be anyone’s angel and knew very little about being a marrow donor. In early 2002, a little girl in his community needed a bone marrow transplant, and Elchonon, who was a 19-year-old student at Yeshiva University in Brooklyn at the time, learned of the search for a donor.
“A group of us went to sign up, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Now that we know, it’s amazing,” he said. “I took a blood test and was given a card, and that was the end of it. I wasn’t a match for that girl.”
Elchonon set the card from Gift of Life aside and didn’t think about it for a few years. When he came across it again, “I had a hard time remembering what the card was all about. A few moments later, it came back to me, and I said, if they didn’t call me until now, most likely, they won’t call me,” and he dropped the card into the garbage.
“A few hours went by,” he continued, “and I got a phone call. I was told I was a potential donor” – a woman.
Elchonon wasn’t sure how he felt about the news. When the first screening indicates a possible match, additional testing is needed, and there is only a 40 percent chance that the potential donor is a good match. After consulting with a few people, Elchonon decided to go ahead with it. “So I went for the testing,” he said, “and almost fainted.”
It was determined that Elchonon was a good match for the woman, but there were complications – she was not in remission. He did not hear about her again, so he assumes she lost her battle with the cancer.
“My gut feeling told me I hadn’t heard the end of it,” Elchonon continued, and he was right. A few months later, he was told he was a potential donor for a 50-year-old male with leukemia.
It was now 2006, and that was all the information Elchonon received at that time. Still, he agreed to go through the more extensive testing again.
By now, David had now been living with CLL for nearly five years. He had gone through two clinical trials and had recently completed his third round of traditional protocol chemotherapy. “We thought it was working, he recalled. “Then I went to Israel, and I nearly passed out. Things got really bad.
“When I got home,” he continued, “I started having blood problems.” In May 2006, my oncologist, Dr. Michael Kommor, consulting with the doctors at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, told him he needed a bone marrow transplant and set the ball in motion, working through the National Bone Marrow Association.
The first obstacle to overcome was getting approval for the procedure from the insurance company. That approval didn’t come until November 1.
Once again, Elchonon went through the testing. “This time, I didn’t faint,” he said, and it was determined that he was a very good match. “They put me through a full physical,” he continued, including an EKG and chest x-rays.
To prepare for the transplant, Elchonon received a series of neupogen shots to stimulate the bone marrow and get the needed cells into his blood stream. Neupogen has some side effects, including bone and muscle pain.
“The first time I got the neupogen,” Elchonen recalled, “they wanted me to come to the hospital just to make sure I would be there if I had any negative reactions. That Shabbos, I was scheduled to be in Long Island. The woman in charge of my case was very concerned about that … because of the slight chance of the spleen rupturing because of the medication. She wanted me to call her the minute I felt the slightest thing. Since it was Shabbos, I was reluctant to use the phone.”
In the end, his trip to Long Island was cancelled, and he didn’t have to worry about breaking Shabbos.
At this point, the relationship between donor and recipient becomes a legally binding contract because as the donor prepares for the transplant, so does the recipient. David was admitted to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and was undergoing treatments. “They destroyed my red and white blood cells while making Elchonon’s blood as healthy as possible so there would be no resistance. … I was totally immunosuppressed. My white blood cell count went down to nothing.”
“Next came the actual transplant, in the middle of Chanukah,” Elchonon said.
The day did not start out well. The night before the procedure, Elchonon had set the time on his alarm clock, “but I forgot to hit the button to turn it on,” he said, “so I overslept. Somebody called me – maybe the cab driver. The cab driver had the wrong address and was on the other side of town.”
Elchonon got up quickly and rushed to get ready before the cab arrived. “In all the hurry,” he recounted, “I forgot my tefillin at home.”
He arrived at the hospital to receive a final injection and “then had to wait an hour before beginning the collection, so I would have time to daven.”
At the hospital, Nelson Gonzalez, Gift of Life’s Network Manager who is based in Florida, was waiting. After a few phone calls, Elchonon found some tefillin and together, he and Nelson raced to the Chabad house on the upper east side of Manhattan, where he davened quickly – with the catheter for the donation already in place.
“We got back to the hospital and started the collection around 10 a.m.,” Elchonon said. Nelson stayed with him through the five-hour process, “and it went very smoothly.”
Elchonon’s part was done. Although he wasn’t feeling well, he went to a family Chanukah party that night and played at another two days later.
He made his donation on Tuesday, December 19, 2006, in New York City, and David received the transplant the next day in Texas.
Things did not go entirely smoothly for David either.
“I had a problem with a baby virus before and after the transplant,” David explained. He had been taking the highly toxic drug ribovarin and had to wear a mask. He also had to spend time in an isolation tent. “If I left the room, I had to be in a semi-hazmat suit with gloves and a plastic gown, and when people were in the room, they had to wear rubber gloves, a mask and a gown.”
The transplant itself went smoothly, and David even rode an exercise bike the day of the procedure.
During the time leading up to the transplant, David and Elchonon had very limited information about each other. When the transplant took place, Elchonon reported, “Every so often, I’d receive an update about how David was doing.” Still they had had no direct contact, and both had to sign releases before contact information was disclosed.
“I was a little apprehensive about picking up the phone and calling David,” Elchonon admitted. “I had to muster up some courage.”
“So one day, I decided. I was nervous about the expectations and what I was going to say,” he said. As he had promised to notify Gift of Life when he made contact with David, he called the office first. His contact was out of the office. “Meanwhile, a few hours went by and David called me.”
“Jodi [Klein, David’s ex-wife] and I had been to Houston for a regular checkup and tests, maybe around June last year,” David recounted, “and one of the last things they gave me was a copy of the handwritten contact information. I was quite anxious as well, but I was excited. … All I wanted to say is thank you.”
As they were driving to the airport, David couldn’t wait. “How do you call a stranger out of the blue?” he thought, but he wanted to make the call. “I don’t remember what we said, but it was an exciting moment – an extraordinary moment.” David put Elchonen on the speaker and the conversation lasted about 20 minutes.
“When the phone rang,” Elchonon said, “I didn’t recognize the caller ID, but when you opened your mouth, I knew it was you. … You had more courage than I did.”
Elchonon made the second call just before Yom Kippur and the two spoke for over an hour, ending only so Elchonon could prepare for Kol Nidre where he was serving as chazzan (cantor) for a congregation in Dallas.
A few months later, Gift of Life asked Elchonon to help recruit potential marrow donors at the annual New York conference of Chabad emissaries. He agreed and in one weekend, about 400 people signed up and allowed their mouths to be swabbed for the initial match testing.
At the drive, Elchonon met Rabbi Avrohom Litvin and soon learned that he knew David. Elchonon had a photo made with the Louisville rabbi and sent it to David.
Gift of Life sent two people to run the drive, Jay Feinberg, the organization’s founder and executive director, and Nelson Gonzales. After renewing their acquaintance, Elchonon said, “he told me he runs the courier training program for Gift of Life.”
Elchonen was intrigued and they made arrangements to meet by phone and Nelson would train him to be a courier.
“A week and a half went by,” Elchonon reported, “and Gift of Life called with an opportunity to do a courier job to Israel.” Elchonon agreed immediately. “Then it got even more interesting. This was a double donation, so, I was told, if I want, I can bring a friend.” Finding a friend to accompany him to Israel was easy.
Elchonon quickly connected with Nelson and did the training over the phone by going over a PowerPoint presentation.
“We flew to Baltimore on Sunday,” Elchonen continued. “On Monday afternoon, we picked up the product and went straight to the airport. … It was interesting going through security, because the product can’t be put through the x-ray” it was checked by hand.
Elchonon and his friend flew from Baltimore to Newark and then on to Israel. Within half an hour of landing, they were at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer. “It was kind of emotional, he reported, “getting to meet some of the family who were waiting and anticipating” the transplants.
Two and a half days later, after visiting some family, Elchonon and his friend flew back to New York.
During that time Elchonon had left David a voice message about his adventure and David had left Elchonon a message inviting Elchonon to Louisville to celebrate his third “rebirthday.” The weather kept that from happening, but Elchonon was in Louisville for Purim weekend and he and David celebrated. He also enjoyed meeting David’s family.
The pair attended Chabad of Louisville’s Purim party on February 28. Rabbi Litvin, the director of Louisville’s Chabad program, arranged for David and Elchonon to share their story with the 225 people at the event and encouraged people to become donors. More than 30 people signed up for the Gift of Life registry that day, and Chabad plans additional drives at future events.
For more information about Gift of Life, go to www.giftoflife.org.