Sharing the gift of life
Stem cell donor and Springfield recipient meet for the first time
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Noah Starr, now 23, and a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, swabbed his cheek with his entire group on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in May 2017. The swabbing was sponsored by Gift of Life Marrow Registry; the DNA collected is entered into a database for potential matches.
A few months later, Starr received a call that he could be a match.
Meanwhile, in a nearly identical time frame, Michelle Sion of Springfield, now 56, went from being an active, healthy person working at the JCC of Scotch Plains to not being able to climb a flight of stairs.
Before leaving New Jersey for a family bar mitzvah in Jerusalem the summer of 2017, she went to see a cardiologist. Instead of flying to Israel, she checked into Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC) after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
“I was always very hopeful I would beat this thing,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview. “I was in good shape, I’m relatively young, and I decided I would do whatever the doctor told me to do.”
By September, after 40 days at HUMC undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the AML had gone into remission. Because of high recurrence rates, however, her doctors recommended a stem cell transplant.
Starr turned out to be the match for Sion. He grew up in Jericho, N.Y., and now lives in Dallas working in commercial finance and producing a history podcast. For him, saying yes to being a donor was a no-brainer.
“I never actually thought I would be called,” he said in a phone interview with NJJN. “I was shocked, anxious, and excited.”
Starr and Sion would not meet until after a mandatory one-year waiting period.
Gift of Life Marrow Registry, an international public bone marrow and stem cell registry headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla., started in 1991 with a focus on Ashkenazi Jewish donors, but has since diversified.
Registry involves a simple swab of the cheek, and most people are never even contacted thereafter. Even then, only 30 percent of those who get the initial call end up being a perfect match. But Starr was.
His anxiety at first had to do with the process of donating — he worried it might be painful. But it turned out, donating stem cells meant sitting in a chair on Dec. 18 for six hours while blood was pumped out of his left arm, into a machine that extracted the stem cells, and then returned through the right arm. (He also had a few injections before donation day of a drug that helped his body produce extra stem cells.)
“It was pretty easy, a minor inconvenience,” he said. Although he thought he would read a book, that turned out to be impossible because he couldn’t move his arms. So, it was Netflix for six hours, he joked.
He knew little about the recipient beyond what he was told: that she was a 54-year-old woman in Europe. Similarly, Sion knew only that her donor was a 22-year-old male in Europe.
Yet, at the time, both Sion and Starr were sitting in the same Bergen County hospital.
Just over a year later, on Feb. 21, they met for the first time at a Gift of Life young professionals event at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan.
“My heart was beating so hard, so fast,” said Sion about meeting Starr. “Knowing I would get to meet him and speak briefly — it was a thrill.” She added, “He was a stranger; now we are connected. There’s no question about it. He saved my life and I’d do anything for this guy now.”
Starr recalled watching on stage as she walked toward him. “I hugged her. She whispered to me, ‘Thank you so much. You saved my life.’ It gives you straight chills. You can’t say anything back. Anyone would have done it in my shoes. It was no big deal.”
Even more powerful than meeting Sion, said Starr, was meeting her husband, Koresh Sion. “‘You’re like a son to me,’” Starr recalled him saying. “What are you supposed to say to that? It was super emotional.”
In fact, Starr is the same age as the Sions’ youngest child, who graduated from the University of Virginia the same year Starr graduated from the University of Texas. (The Sions also have a 26-year-old son.) Meeting Sion also put things in perspective for Starr. “That could have been my mom,” he said.
Sion had the chance to meet Starr’s mother (his father was unable to attend the gala). “His mother is a character,” she recalled with a chuckle. “She said to me, ‘I’m an overbearing Jewish mother and you’ll have to put up with me.’”
They all plan to meet again and spend time together this spring, when Sion and her family will be in Dallas for a bar mitzvah.
Starr has a message for anyone considering joining the bone marrow registry: “If it seems like a nerve-wracking experience, or it seems daunting, recognize that you put in a little time for something bigger than yourself,” he said.
“I put in a week of thinking about it and six hours of sitting, and for the rest of her life and the rest of mine, we share a bond. You can’t measure how unbelievable it is.”