Enthusiastic Western Pennsylvania native gives the ‘Gift of Life’

Enthusiastic Western Pennsylvania native gives the ‘Gift of Life’

Emily Simons on her day of donation. Photo provided by Gift of Life
Emily Simons on her day of donation. Photo provided by Gift of Life

Emily Simons was not sure she wanted to hear the news she would be receiving last week, an update regarding the health status of a stranger, albeit one with whom she shares a very intimate connection.

On Feb. 24, Simons got a call from Gift of Life, which works to match potential donors with those in need of a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, with an update about the man to whom the West Allegheny native donated stem cells.

“My heart sank,” Simons wrote on her blog, Swab Away the Stigma, through which she has been tracking her experiences as a stem cell blood donor since November 2016. Simons, 23, was not prepared to hear bad news, she wrote.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to be.

“I am overwhelmed with relief and joy to announce my cells have graphed in my patient, and he has since been discharged from the hospital,” Simons wrote on her blog. “He is still in recovery and has a long journey before he is out of the dark, but there is hope.”

Simons, whose family is affiliated with Temple Emanuel of South Hills, doesn’t know that much about the person whose life she may have saved with her donation. What she does know is that he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is male and is 57 years old.

But the most important thing Simons knows about him, she said, is that he needed her help.

Simons began her journey as a stem cell donor through Gift of Life in September 2013 while she was still a student at Temple University. Temple’s Hillel was hosting a Gift of Life registry drive in its sukkah when the social work major had the inside of her cheek swabbed with cotton.

Two and a half years later, in April 2016, Simons — then a senior at Temple — was contacted by Gift of Life with news that she had matched and was a potential stem cell donor.

Simons, who now is on staff at the San Francisco Hillel, did not hesitate to proceed.

“I was excited,” Simons said. “For me, it didn’t really feel like a choice; it felt like an obligation. I’m a healthy donor, and I had the ability to save someone’s life. There was no question.”

After the initial call from Gift of Life, Simons underwent additional blood tests to confirm that she was a good match for her patient and medical examinations to make sure she was in good enough health. At the same time, doctors were working to get the recipient healthy enough to withstand the transplant.

Last October, Simons learned that the patient was ready for the transplant; Gift of Life asked her if she was ready to commit. She was.

By Dec. 19 — which happens to be her birthday — Simons was off to Washington, D.C., to undergo the donation procedure. She was hospitalized for only one day and flew back to California the following day.

“The procedure was painless,” Simons said. “I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to save a person’s life.”

Simons hopes that others will be inspired by the journey reflected in her blog to also become registered in the Gift of Life data base, she said.

Although she helped organize a registry drive in October at the San Francisco Hillel, “many students didn’t want to do it,” Simons said. “They were scared. But seeing me go through it put it into perspective for them. I tell them, ‘he donation is not about you; it’s about the person that is receiving.’”

Simons said she thinks a lot about the man who received her donation. She has sent him a letter through Gift of Life, and is awaiting a reply. She would like to meet him one day, which is permissible after one year if both parties consent.

“I want to meet him, but I understand if he isn’t interested,” Simons said. “The highest level of tzedakah is giving anonymously, but meeting him would be an amazing perk. He has a part of me inside of him. It would be nice to put a face to that.”

More than 51,000 Hillel donors have, to date, produced 240 transplants, according to Gift of Life Chairman William Begal.

“It is evident that our partnership with Hillel is making the world a better place,” he said. “The return on this investment is lives saved. Gift of Life is grateful for the opportunity to share our message with the members of Hillel chapters, and employees like Emily, all over the world.

“How amazing that Emily, as a Hillel employee, now gets to share this experience with those that she works with and encounters daily,” Begal continued. “So many organizations are looking for a cure. We at Gift of Life know that the cure is already in each one of us, and we just need to let everyone know how simple it is to make a difference.”

Visit giftoflife.org for more information.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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