Troy resident and bone marrow recipient Bernard Weiner, 70, works on strength training at the Troy Community Center Aug. 15.

Troy resident and bone marrow recipient Bernard Weiner, 70, works on strength training at the Troy Community Center Aug. 15.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Troy bone marrow recipient meets his match, pays it forward 

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published August 21, 2018

 Weiner, right, weeps as he meets Judah Berger, 22, his bone marrow match, in Boca Raton, Florida, at the Gift of Life Marrow Registry Campus Ambassador Symposium Aug. 7.

Weiner, right, weeps as he meets Judah Berger, 22, his bone marrow match, in Boca Raton, Florida, at the Gift of Life Marrow Registry Campus Ambassador Symposium Aug. 7.

Photo provided by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry

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TROY — Longtime Troy resident Bernard Weiner stopped his workout at the Troy Community Center to share his story with reporters over the phone and in person. 

“I want to get the word out,” he said with a shrug. 

Weiner, 70, worked as a engineering records specialist for General Dynamics Land Systems for 34 years, until he retired seven years ago. 

He was diagnosed with myelodysplastic disorder, a blood cancer, after doctors at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute had been monitoring his blood platelet count for about 12 years prior because they had been found it to be abnormal. 

Before his diagnosis, he walked across the golf course, rather than use a cart. Before his diagnosis, he was “always healthy, never sick,” he said. 

Weiner needed a bone marrow transplant. He was entered into the Gift of Life Marrow Registry. 

Gift of Life is an international public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida. 

Jay Feinberg founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1991. Feinberg was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 22 years old and learned that a bone marrow match would be extremely difficult because tissue type is inherited, and the best chance of finding a genetic match lies with those of similar ethnicity. 

“Feinberg was of Eastern European descent, and at that time, the registry was not diverse and potential donors from that background were not prevalent,” the Gift of Life website, giftoflife.org,  states.

He and his family launched a four-year international search and registered over 60,000 donors, finding hundreds of matches for other cancer patients, but not for Feinberg. 

“As his time was running out, one final drive was held, and the last person tested that day turned out to be his perfect match. The lengthy struggle to find a donor inspired Feinberg and his family to pay it forward and start the Gift of Life Marrow Registry,” the website states. 

According to Gift of Life: 

• There is a 1 in 4 chance of matching a sibling.

• Only 30 percent of matches are found within the family; 70 percent of donors are strangers found on the registry. 

• Approximately 20,000 people in the U.S. need a bone marrow transplant. 

• There is an urgent need to increase diversity in registries; 55 percent of latinos, 60 percent of Asian Americans, 75 percent of African Americans and 75 percent of multiracial people cannot find a donor. 

Weiner was matched with a donor, but due to a sudden health issue, the donor was not able to provide the marrow.

The registry found another match, in Atlanta, resident Judah Berger, 22, who had participated in a swab drive when he was 18. 

Due to strict confidentiality laws, neither knew the other’s identity until recently.

Weiner received the bone marrow transplant at Karmanos March 22, 2017, which he says is “his second birthday.” 

“I started to feel really good. Then something changed. It regressed to leukemia,” he said. 

He underwent chemotherapy, and he is now in remission.

“I’m sure Judah’s cells helped me fight off leukemia,” he said. “I have 100 percent of his DNA.” 

 

Weiner meets his donor
On Aug. 7, Weiner and Berger met on-stage at the Gift of Life Campus Ambassador Symposium at the Boca Raton Marriott, where 90 student leaders from more than 100 colleges and universities in 32 states gathered for a three-day training session.

According to Gift of Life, “transplant doctors seek donors aged 18-25 more than 90 percent of the time because this demographic produces the most stem cells and is the healthiest population, meaning a better chance of success for the patient.”

“I was contacted by the Gift of Life a month ago,” Weiner said. “They asked me if I wanted to meet my donor.

“My wife, Harriet, and I were thrilled. My wife has been a rock through all of this, my best supporter.” 

Weiner also credited the support from his family, including daughter Robyn Rinke and son Aaron,  for his recovery. 

According to a prepared statement, “Berger, who was raised celebrating Jewish traditions, including hosting people who had nowhere to celebrate Friday night Sabbath dinners, said his upbringing shaped his decision to donate. ‘In the Torah it says you should help a stranger 36 times, even though it might be counterintuitive,’” he told the Gift of Life Campus Ambassadors. “‘Know that you will make a difference.’ Turning to Weiner, he added, “‘We are living proof.’”

“I just wanted to give him a big hug,” said Weiner, who is also Jewish. “There were some tears. It was emotional for both of us. Now we’re friends for life. Now I’m hoping for more years of my life. Judah saved my life. I’m hoping to watch my grandkids grow up. It’s been a long journey. But I’m a survivor and a fighter.”

Weiner explained that donors take meds five days prior to donating, and they sometimes experience a little hip pain during the procedure. 

“Judah, who now lives in Manhattan, wants to come and meet my family,” Weiner said. “He’s the best friend I never wanted.” 

The Gift of Life Marrow Registry is open to those of all ethnic backgrounds with a focus of increasing diversity, “one of the biggest challenges,” Feinberg, CEO and founder of the organization, told C & G Newspapers. 

“The best chance of a genetic match is someone of the same background,” he said. “We try to encourage different minority groups.” 

He encouraged anyone who wishes to provide a swab or spearhead a swab drive to enroll on the website. 

“It’s very, very easy. Anybody and everybody can go online. It only takes a swab to join the registry,” he said.

He added that donating is not the “scary thing you see on TV or in the movies. The fact is, over 80 percent (of those who provide a swab) don’t actually donate bone marrow.”

Feinberg explained that most who donate provide stem cells, which does not involve an operating room or anesthesia but is done in a comfortable chair while watching a TV screen.

He added that the process of donating bone marrow is not what he’s seen depicted on TV or in movies.

“It’s a much simpler process,” he said. 

For information about providing cheek swabs and joining the bone marrow registry, visit giftoflife.org.

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