Highland Park bone marrow donor and young recipient remain ‘like family’
Mark DeFrancesco Jr., 26, never expected to see adulthood.
When he was a child he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and at the age of 9, chemotherapy and radiation withered his body down to around 30 pounds. He was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, but despite testing drives throughout his home state of Connecticut and the support of his local community, no match had been found for DeFrancesco.
Then “like a miracle,” he told NJJN, a matching bone marrow donor, Samuel Aronoff of Highland Park, was found.
“He will always be my brother and family,” said DeFrancesco of West Haven, Conn. “I’m very grateful for what Samuel did and I wouldn’t be here today without him. The outcome for me was very slim without a bone marrow transplant.”
DeFrancesco and Aronoff were matched through Gift of Life Marrow Registry, an international public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry. It was founded in 1991 by former West Orange resident Jay Feinberg, who recovered from leukemia thanks to a successful bone marrow transplant.
One year after DeFrancesco’s transplant, he and Aronoff met in a ceremony organized by the New York Mets and Gift of Life before a game at Shea Stadium in Queens. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of their first meeting, the Mets invited both to come back; this time the game was at Citi Field, on May 20. Aronoff was unable to attend, but he spoke with NJJN about his donor experience and sustained and deep connection with DeFrancesco.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to save somebody’s life,” said Aronoff, who is known locally as Shlomo.
The greatest chance of getting matched is within a person’s own family. If a family match isn’t found, the next greatest chance is within the same ethnic group. While DeFrancesco is 75 percent Italian, he has a Jewish grandmother. Aronoff, now 36, was a Rutgers University student in 2002 when Rutgers Hillel held a drive to swab students to place them on the Gift of Life Marrow Registry. He received a call in 2003 that he matched with DeFrancesco. When he was 11, DeFrancesco received his transplant at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
“Thank God I was healthy enough to do it,” said Aronoff.
The match with DeFrancesco was “complete randomness,” said Aronoff in a phone interview with NJJN, adding, “Obviously the hand of the Divine was involved.”
“Why some get matched and some don’t is not for us to know,” said Aronoff, the deli manager at the Lawrenceville ShopRite’s Kosher Experience. He grew up in the Young Israel of Lawrenceville, where his parents — Bill and Carol — still belong. Aronoff is a member of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park.
DeFrancesco, who spoke to NJJN from Las Vegas, where he is doing a summer internship, is entering his senior year at Southern Connecticut State University, majoring in hospitality and event planning. Ten years after recovering from leukemia he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but is now cured.
He gets together whenever he can with Aronoff and the two have appeared elsewhere for Gift of Life, including at gala dinners and an appearance on a local Chicago television program. DeFrancesco also has run a Gift of Life registry at his college in which 150 people were tested within three hours.
“I can never repay what [Aronoff] and Gift of Life did for me,” said DeFrancesco, who said he would like to work for Gift of Life as an event planner after graduation.
The DeFrancesco and Aronoff families have become close, he said, adding that Aronoff’s parents “are great people.”
And at Aronoff’s wedding to his wife, Kit, last July, DeFrancesco, his girlfriend, and parents were all there.
For information about Gift of Life Marrow Registry, visit giftoflife.org.