South Florida Hospital News
Saturday September 19, 2020
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March 2006 - Volume 2 - Issue 9
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While Trying to Save His Own Life – He Saved Hundreds of Others

In 1991, at the age of 23, Jay Feinberg was told he had leukemia. Difficult news to hear at any age, Jay was just beginning his adult life as a foreign exchange analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "Complete shock", is how Jay described the reaction he and his family had to the news.

Nothing in Jay’s life up to that point gave any hint of the chilling diagnosis. Born in Nyack, New York Jay was a smart but quiet child. He was youngest of three boys in the Feinberg family headed by father Jack, an accountant, and mother Arlene, a clothing store owner. Jay graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1990 and, as with most college graduates, was ready to make his mark on the world. He did, but not in the way he planned.

Suddenly at the age of 23, the initial symptoms of the leukemia struck Jay. "Extreme pain in my joints, especially my knees, which caused difficulty walking. In addition, I had black and blue marks on my body and began experiencing night sweats," Jay said as he described his symptoms. After being checked out by doctors, they gave him the bad news.

According to his doctors, in order to survive, and not have his young life cut short, he needed a bone marrow transplant. His best hope for survival depended upon finding a genetically matched donor. Because tissue type is inherited, the best chance of finding a genetic match lies with donors who have a similar ethnic background. In Jay’s case, they needed a donor of Eastern European Jewish descent. After finding that none of Jay’s immediate family was a close enough match to donate bone marrow to Jay, they searched bone marrow registries worldwide to find a suitable match, but without success. Donors with Jewish backgrounds were difficult to find as a result of the Holocaust severing the bloodlines of Jewish families. Despite not finding a donor, Jay was optimistic saying, "I always thought the glass was half full and that a donor would be found."

As he and his family contemplated his fate, the idea to try to find a donor by screening friends, and friends of friends was born. This effort could potentially help him and likely help many others. The goal was to increase representation of Jewish volunteer bone marrow donors. From this idea a grass-roots organization called ‘Friends of Jay’ was organized which eventually became the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.

During the period 1991 through mid 1995, working at the grassroots level with local Jewish organizations, the Friends of Jay recruited 60,000 volunteer donors. This was a tremendously successful effort which generated awareness of the need for donors among those with Jewish background. While the work of the organization was increasingly successful, ironically, despite the large number of donors identified, still no matching donor was found for Jay.

When asked how he felt after four years of searching for donors and finding matches for others but not for him, Jay responded, "It was actually one of the things that kept us motivated. We were thrilled that we were helping other people in similar circumstances along the way."

In 1995, as Jay’s medical condition worsened, his doctors prepared to do a transplant from a mismatched donor, not an ideal option but the only hope of survival for Jay. Then as if by a miracle, an exact bone marrow match was found for Jay. At a last ditch effort recruitment drive at the Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study in Milwaukee, a young woman, Becky Faibisoff, was among the last volunteers tested and was a match for Jay. Soon after finding Becky, Jay successfully received a bone marrow transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle on July 28, 1995.

"’Friends of Jay’ was so successful at finding matches for other patients during the search for my own donor, I pledged that if I survived my transplant, I would devote the rest of my life to continuing the work we had started," Jay recounted. So in 1995, ‘Friends of Jay’ became the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and true to his pledge, Jay began his lifelong work.

Jay described how the organization searches for donors. "One of our most successful programs is our recruitment partnership with groups such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, birthright israel, and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. Students are introduced to our partnership through their respective organizations, and then contact Gift of Life if they are interested in running drives. We have several publications and materials to help guide volunteers through the process of planning the drive." Jay continues, "We also hold drives in communities where there is a patient who needs a match. Sometimes groups decide to run drives as a social action project just for the benefit of doing something good for the community."

Since 1995, with Jay at the helm and family, friends and volunteers by his side, the Foundation has continued the work with great success. Supported only by private donations, Gift of Life has added almost 100,000 additional new donors to its registry ranking it twelfth in size among 53 registries worldwide. Since 1991, over 1,000 matches have been made and lives saved. In 2005, Gift of Life launched its newest initiative, a public umbilical cord blood program.

Jay’s work has been recognized worldwide. In April 2004 he received the newly created Charles Bronfman Prize which is a humanitarian award given to individuals who distinguish themselves as leaders of the future. Jay was the first person to receive the Bronfman award. Talking about the award, Jay commented, "It is always thrilling to be recognized for the work that you do, and the awards help bring attention to the organization and our mission. The biggest reward we get is saving lives. I can’t think of a more important or more enjoyable way to spend my time."

Other recognition for Jay includes receiving an honorary doctorate degree in 2005 from Yeshiva University, in 1999 he was honored with the Hadassah International World Citizenship Award, and in 1994 was awarded the National Marrow Donor Program’s Allison Atlas Memorial Award.

Jay continues to be very active counseling patients and their families on donor search strategies and transplant options. Jay says, "Of all the activities in which I am involved, helping patients and their families one on one brings the most joy to me. I know what they are feeling and what it means to hear a donor has been found."

For more information on the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, whose national office is located in Boca Raton, Florida, call (561) 988-0100.
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