VERO BEACH - A Vero Beach woman is anxiously waiting to find out if the bone marrow she donated will save the life of a two year old boy, a child she has never met and knows little about.
Orit Stamker is 41 years old. She was born and raised in Israel, and moved to the United States 11 years ago. She is a single mother of two, a five year old boy and an eight year old girl. She hadn’t thought about donating bone marrow until August 2018.
“I was touched by a story of a young Israeli woman who was dying, and the only thing that could save her was bone marrow,” Ms. Stamker told Hometown News. “They were looking for a match and could find none.”
Upon hearing the story, Ms. Stamker did some research, and discovered an international bone marrow registry run by a non-profit called Be The Match, which is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program. It manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world.
Ms. Stamker went to their website and immediately signed up, hoping she might be a match for the Israeli woman. Be The Match mailed her a kit, she swabbed her cheek, and mail it back. It took Ms. about two minutes, and there is no cost. Once Be The Match processes the sample on the swab, they send the potential donor an ID card, and you are then in the international registry, awaiting a match.
When patients need bone marrow, often for life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, their doctors look on the registry to find a match. As it turned out, the doctor of somebody who needed bone marrow found Ms. Stamker.
“It turned out I wasn’t a match for that Israeli girl. But, as far as I was concerned, once I signed up, I was in all the way. If I wasn’t a match for that girl, maybe I would be a match to somebody else. And that’s what happened.”
In February, she got a call from Be The Match. The representative said there was a possibility that Ms. Stamker was a match for a two year old boy who has a life-threatening disease, and the only thing that could save him would be the bone marrow.
“They don’t disclose a lot of information, but she did mention leukemia the first time she called. After that they just said “life-threatening disease.”
Ms. Stamker described her feelings upon hearing she could perhaps save the life of a two-year-old boy.
“I have heard stories of people who have been on the registry for years and they never got a call. I had just registered less than six months ago. I had the opportunity to save a two year old boy’s life! I was crying! At that point, it wasn’t sure yet that I was a match, I was just a potential match.”
Ms. Stamker was told nothing about the boy – where he lived, what his race, religion, or even nationality were. And it didn’t matter to her. “The only information they gave me was that he is a boy and he is two, and he has a life-threatening disease.”
Thus began a series of blood tests.
“The first blood test they took 11 vials of blood, which was needed to check if I was 100% match for the boy. This was done at One Blood in Vero Beach.”
“It took about a month for them to call me back. I was of course hoping that I would be a match for the boy. They finally called and said I am a match for this boy. They told me that if at any time I had second thoughts, I could back out.”
She never considered backing out for one moment, even after she learned all that was required of potential donors.
“It hit me that this is happening, it’s real. I thought I could hopefully save that little boy’s life.”
At this point Ms. Stamker was overcome with emotion, and we paused for a few minutes before continuing.
“The whole time I was thinking about his mother, and what she was going through. I have a five year old boy and an eight year old daughter. It really touched me when they told me I could save him. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to go through whatever I needed to go through.”
It wasn’t even relevant to her to know more about the boy, or where he was located. She didn’t care if he was Muslim, Jewish, Christian, “it was irrelevant to me. A little boy needed help.”
As the medical staff started to explain the bone marrow donation process, Ms. Stamker was a bit nervous, but never second-guessed her decision.
“When they called me the second time, they went into detail about what I would need to do. They said there were two options. Option one, which I was hoping for, was the easiest one. They take your blood, take whatever they need from your blood, then they put it back into your body in the second arm. That process takes about six hours, and it is easiest because it is not too invasive.”
“The second option, I needed to go under anesthesia, and they would poke a hole in two locations on my pelvic bone, and extract the bone marrow from there. That is way more invasive than the first option. When they called back, they said that because of the boy’s condition, they will have to do it the second way. They again told me I could back out if I wanted to. But that was never an option for me.”
Ms. Stamker was sent for more blood tests in Vero Beach, this time testing her own health and fitness, and whether she was in the right condition to go through the process.
“When I passed those tests, they said I needed to fly to Washington DC. The original date was April 14, but they called me and said the boy was in bad condition, and he had to go through some treatment first. So they delayed my trip and said they weren’t sure it would happen at all. That was like a punch in my belly. All I could think was I hoped he could make it at least until he can get my bone marrow.”
“A few days later, they called and said they re-scheduled it for two weeks later. So I booked a flight to Washington for April 28, and the procedure would be on April 29. Even then, they told me there was a possibility that the boy wouldn’t get my bone marrow, because of his condition.”
Ms. Stamker flew to Washington DC. Be The Match picked up all expenses, and even allowed her to bring a friend. They were put up at a Georgetown hotel just a few steps from the hospital.
Walking into the hospital, Ms. Stamker said “It was nerve wracking. I didn’t want to know a lot before I went in, because I didn’t want to be freaked out. I knew the general information. They sedated me, took me to the operating room, then I woke up in a different room!” The whole process from prep to waking up in the recovery room took about two hours.
“It was not bad at all. What they needed to take out of me, because it was for a two year old boy, was not a lot.”
And where was the boy this whole time?
“I don’t know. He could have been in the same hospital, he could have been in a different state, he could have been in a different country. I have no idea.”
“After a year passes from the donation, if everything went well, they allow an exchange of contact information if we want to speak with each other. I have to wait a year for that. I am very curious to find out. If they call and tell me it was successful, that will be amazing. And if they want to meet me or talk to me, I would say of course. I want to put a face to this story.”
The day after the procedure, she went back to the hospital to change bandages.
“When I was there, the nurse told me that the boy will get the donation the same day. So now, the boy already got my donation. That was another emotional moment. I was crying, the nurse was crying, my friend was crying, it was very emotional. I asked the nurse if he was in the same hospital, but she couldn’t tell me. Until that point, I didn’t know if and when he was going to get it. To know that he got my donation that day was amazing.”
At this point, Ms. Stamker still knows no more details about the boy than she knew at the beginning. And she thinks about the experience all the time.
“I don’t think I will ever get this out of my mind. It was an amazing experience. Just the thought that I could help somebody is amazing. I really think people should do this. There is no other gift you can give more than life. It is very rewarding.”
“There is some pain and recovery after the procedure. It is uncomfortable. They punch holes in your pelvic bone. But the pain that I am going through is really nothing compared to the pain that family is going through.”
“It’s really rewarding to me to know I maybe gave the gift of life to somebody. I don’t think there is anything more amazing other than to give birth to a child. It is almost like that.”
Would she do it all again? “Absolutely, with no reservations. And I really hope this article can convince one person. If I can convince one person to do this, it will make me even more happy.”
Ms. Stamker said it would take at least a month before it is known if her donation helped the boy.
“I really hope that that little boy will make it. That would be the best ending to the story. The feeling I got out of this whole process is very extraordinarily rewarding. I don’t even have the words inside to tell how it made me feel. It’s rewarding in every way. That boy has his whole life in front of him. He may do great things. I would do it again, not just for a little boy, but for anybody.”
When she returned to Vero Beach, Ms. Stamker found that her employer, The Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County, had decided to pay her for the days she was in the hospital, as if she had worked those days. She had never asked for or expected that, so she considered it an example of good deeds coming full circle.
Orit Stamker has enjoyed discussing the process with her own children.
“They ask a lot of questions. To show them that you can do a selfless act I think is the best lesson a parent can give to her child, to show them that people can be good, do good things, for people that they don’t know, just to help. I want to believe that if my kids need this kind of help, somebody will step in and help them. Even if my kids don’t understand the whole thing right now, they will one day.”
“There is a sentence from the Talmud that has been in my head since I joined the registry: “He who saves the life of one saves the entire world.”
If Orit Stamker’s story motivates you to be a bone marrow donor, or if you want to learn more, visit Be The Match, www.bethematch.org.