East Brunswick stem cell donor meets woman whose life he saved
It’s been a productive year for Harvey Pava, a 27-year-old resident of East Brunswick: He created one life, and saved another.
Six months ago he became a father when his son, Oliver, was born and on Oct. 29 he met the 42-year-old Long Island woman whose life he saved by donating his stem cells.
“I try to make each year bigger and better than the one before,” said Pava in a phone interview with NJJN, although he readily acknowledged it would be hard to top 2017.
He and the recipient, Florence Ivy, met at the Steps of Life 5K Run/Walk in New York’s Battery Park, sponsored by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, through which Pava was registered.
Ivy suffered from debilitating pulmonary infections, a genetic condition that, since birth, had left her with little lung function and unable to do many everyday tasks. She faced either a risky lung transplant or the much safer stem cell donor match.
While the best chance of finding a compatible donor is within a recipient’s immediate family, none of Ivy’s family was a match. The next best is within a recipient’s own ethnic group, and Ivy turned to Gift of Life, which focuses on registering Jews for the National Bone Marrow Registry in the United States and other countries. Many recipients receive bone marrow donations to cure blood cancers.
“I’m doing great,” said the Mastic Beach, N.Y., woman in a phone interview. “I haven’t been hospitalized in a very long time for the first time in my life. Before the transplant I wasn’t a reliable person. Making plans was difficult because I was never sure when I would be hospitalized. I don’t see my doctors nearly as often. My family is less terrorized that I won’t be here anymore.”
The changes in her lifestyle have been dramatic, she said. For the first time in as long as she can remember, Ivy can venture from her home for long periods of time, no longer afraid she won’t have the breath to make it back. She can help her husband with yardwork, and she even joined a gym. She appreciates the little things many people take for granted.
“I can walk across my house and roll over in bed without gasping for breath,” said Ivy, a writer, photographer, and gecko breeder. “Before I was kind of relegated to watching life pass me by on the couch.”
Pava, a commercial mortgage broker and member of the Young Israel of East Brunswick, had his cheek swabbed about five years ago at a drive held at Yeshiva University for a young boy, who like many desperately searching for a compatible donor, died before a match was found.
Pava admitted he came for the cookies and cakes, and at the urging of a college roommate who helped organize the drive.
However, after receiving the call from Gift of Life that he appeared to be a match, “I got educated,” doing research and talking to foundation staff before making the decision to move forward.
“I was ready and felt very lucky to be in the position to do something of that magnitude for somebody,” said Pava. “There are so many people on the registry for years looking for donors or recipients and I really feel privileged to have done this.”
He underwent further tests to determine compatibility based on a 12-point scale. The goal is to get as many points of compatibility as possible; in Pava’s case he was a “perfect match” with Ivy on all 12 points.
That was followed by an extensive physical exam, which included determining if he had any allergies — Pava had none — since the recipient would likely also develop those allergies. Pava also received a shot of the drug, neupogen, which causes white blood cells to go into overdrive and produce an excessive amount of stem cells.
About 10 days later, Pava went to Hackensack University Medical Center, where his blood was filtered to harvest the stem cells and then returned to his body. The main side effect was feeling exhausted and a little achy for about 48 hours, he said.
Ivy’s procedure was conducted through an experimental program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. (She said hospitals in the tri-state area refused to take her on because she has an immune deficiency.)
She said the transplant has left her with some unexpected physical changes. Instead of having female XX chromosomes, hers are now XY male chromosomes. Her blood type went from A positive to A negative. But that’s just a footnote to her incredible recovery.
“I have a future now, which is kind of awesome because it was looking for a while like I wasn’t going to have one,” said Ivy. “I get to be my husband’s only wife instead of his first one. I get to see my nephews grow up and get to convince others of the importance of getting on the registry.”
Registry rules allow donors and recipients to meet a year after the transplant if both parties agree. When they finally met, Ivy said her family and Pava’s formed an immediate bond and have remained in contact, mainly on Facebook.
Pava described the meeting between himself and Ivy as “really special.” He said it was “awesome to meet someone with whom you have such a connection,” though he admitted it was a little unnerving.
“It’s hard to describe the relationship because they have your blood running through their veins,” he explained, adding that he was concerned about making the meeting “too personal, because I didn’t want this person in any way to feel too indebted to me.”
“I did it for the sake of people and I’m just humbled and gratified I got this opportunity and I have a lot of gratitude to Hashem for giving me this amazing opportunity,” he said.
Pava said he’d jump at the chance to help someone else if he is lucky enough to be a match again.
“Heck yeah, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”