By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
A simple cheek swab collected at a Chicago Jewish donor drive saved the life of a baby who was battling an inherited immune symptom disorder until his transplant.
Brooke Dordek, a then 34-year-old mother of two and special needs teacher at Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School, proved to be an exact tissue type match to two-year-old Sebastian Martinez of California who desperately needed a stem cell donation.
At a recent Gift of Life Marrow Registry gala in Los Angeles, she met the child, an experience she describes as overwhelming. “I couldn’t believe just how happy and grateful they were to me,” Dordek said. “There’s, like, no words when you meet somebody that you’ve saved and is alive because of you.”
In 2013, Dordek voluntarily joined the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, which, since 1991, has cured blood cancer and inherited immune disorders through stem cell and bone marrow donations.
The registry now numbers 350,000 donors whose tissue type matches have saved the lives of 3,500 recipients, said Marti Freund, director of community engagement.
Overwhelming support from the Jewish community at countless donor drives has benefited many people of Jewish ancestry, Freund said.
That includes Gift of Life founder, Jay Feinberg of Boca Raton, whose donor was located in 1994 through a Milwaukee yeshiva drive organized by a Chicago student, Benji Merzel. “He just wanted to pay it forward. We had found a match for a friend of his from college who needed a transplant,” said Feinberg, a leukemia survivor. It took him four years to find his transplant donor, Becky Faibisoff, whose family is from Chicago.
Donors like Dordek are given the opportunity to meet their recipients one year after the transplant due to medical privacy laws. At the gala in Los Angeles, the boy’s family showed her heartbreaking hospital photos of their baby connected to tubes undergoing invasive treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. “They were telling me how sick he was,” said Dordek, who brought the boy a stuffed elephant.
Though behind in his development, Sebastian is now a happy and healthy boy thanks to Dordek’s stem cell gift. “He looks healthy and his cheeks are getting chubbier,” she said.
The boy’s father, Juan Martinez, was grateful for the opportunity to meet Dordek. “We were very desperate to find a donor. To meet the person who gave life back to my son is amazing. You don’t have the words to say. . . thank you. Thank you for helping this little boy.”
The Martinez’s are not Jewish, but Dordek believes her Jewish father’s Mexican heritage had everything to do with the 100 percent match. The Martinez family is originally from Mexico and Dordek shares their Spanish ancestry. Dordek’s father is a descendant of Conversos that came to Mexico during the Inquisition, she said.
Dordek said she consulted with her doctors and her rabbi before making the decision to fly to Washington, D.C. in 2017 where they would harvest her stem cells. At the time she had an infant and had to wait a few months before she could leave. “I was torn because I didn’t want to leave my family, but I needed to help this child who was suffering. I finally said, ‘I have to do this.’”
Dordek had a friend whose son was going through something similar and he didn’t make it. “I would hope that someone would do it for me.”
The process was similar to donating plasma. “It was really not painful at all,” she said. “They sent him my bag of stem cells the next day.”
Dordek said she wants to stay in touch with the Martinez family. “I’d love to keep up with Sebastian. The family are very nice people.”
Juan Martinez is forever grateful for the new friendship. “You know this person has such a good heart to do what she did for my son.”
To become a volunteer donor or organize a drive for Gift of Life Marrow Registry, visit www.giftoflife.org