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  • Robert Soiffer, MD

    Stem cell donors - real heroes in everyday life

    Robert Soiffer, MDRobert Soiffer, MD 

    Here's the answer: an elementary school teacher, an ophthalmologist, a distributor of minibars, and a medical technician.

    So what's the question? I imagine this would be a tough one for even the best "Jeopardy" contestant.

    These are the occupations of four stem cell donors who were introduced to their recipients at Gift of Life's Seventh Annual Partners for Life Gala in New York City on May 15, 2007. It was an emotional experience for patients, donors, family members, and transplant professionals alike.

    It was my honor to witness the meeting of one of my patients and his donor for the first time. My patient, an archaeologist, recounted some of his accomplishments in the past two years since his transplant for acute myelogenous leukemia: lectures given, books written, archeological sites excavated.

    Impressive as the list was, it paled in comparison to his personal accomplishments: seeing his sons graduate from school; watching them learn to play guitar and trumpet; attending the wedding of a dear relative; simply waking up and experiencing each new day.

    The stories of the other recipients were no less poignant. One young woman graduated from college. Another had reached her second birthday.

    No drug, no form of graft-versus-host prophylaxis, no antibiotic is more important to the success of allogeneic transplants than the availability of suitably matched stem cells. Simply put, the transplant process wouldn't be possible without the gift of life from bone marrow and stem cell donors.

    As my patient spoke about his own transplant experience, he said that the sacrifice made by his donor, a complete stranger, confirmed for him the ultimate goodness of humanity, and that true, unselfish altruism does exist in this world.

    All of the donors echoed identical sentiments about their motivation to donate: simply that it was the right thing to do. They could not pass up the opportunity to help a fellow human in need. More than one recounted a theme from the movie Schindler's List: that to save one life is to save an entire civilization.

    Most of us do not get the opportunity to be real heroes in our everyday lives. Donating marrow or stem cells provides that kind of opportunity.

    Not only is each donor giving life to an individual transplant patient, but also many are helping to save other lives by participating in clinical trials. For example, right now, hundreds of volunteer donors are taking part in a study to answer important questions about bone marrow versus peripheral blood stem cell collection, which will serve future donors.

    As a transplant physician, I want to express my gratitude for the enormous generosity of donors, as well as my appreciation to phenomenal organizations like Gift of Life that facilitate donations.

    Robert Soiffer, MD, is Chief of the Hematologic Malignancies Division and Co-chief of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program. 

    Learn about Dana-Farber's stem cell/bone marrow transplant program 

    Read more stories about the stem cell transplant patient experience 

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