When Eitan Zabow joined the IDF, he had every reason to believe he’d be helping to save the lives of his fellow Israelis. He had no idea that he would also end up saving the life of a Canadian living half a world away.
Eighteen years ago, Torontonian Jack Mandelker was diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer and was given an ominous prognosis: he had two years left to live – and one of them would be spent in a hospital.
“During a regular check up, my doctor said, ‘There is something funny about your blood,’ ” explained Mandelker. “He sent me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera leukemia. He explained to me the common course of the disease is, after 15 years, it turns into something called myelofibrosis … which is the death of your bone marrow.”
Before a donor was found, Mandelker had been told that he had four days to live. “I had gotten an e-coli infection,” he said. “I had pneumonia, my liver was diseased up to 487 – the number should never be more than 30.”
Meanwhile, Zabow, the deputy commander of the IDF’s Nahal Infantry Brigade Training Base, had taken time out of his busy schedule to do an act of kindness. “In the middle of my military service, during combat drills, I came to the hospital to donate my stem cells,” said Zabow. He was found to be a match and his bone marrow saved Mandelker’s life.
The two men finally met each other face-to-face at a fundraising event in Toronto on Nov. 9, which was held in support of Ezer Mizion, the not-for-profit organization that manages the world’s largest bone marrow registry and was responsible for the life-saving match.
“I was very excited and couldn’t wait to meet Jack – it was very emotional to meet him,” said Zabow.
Mandelker added that, “There was no suggestion ever of any near meeting. It was thrilling, there he was in front of me. There was really no words. Tears, but no real words.”
Every year, some 60,000 new recruits join the Ezer Mizion registry. The registry began in Israel in 1998 and relies heavily on the support of volunteers. The registry has grown to include 999,268 potential donors, over half of whom are current or former IDF members.
On Oct. 21, 2016, Mandelker received the transplant, but he was not the only one who felt gifted. “On my 24th birthday, I received the greatest gift ever,” said Zabow. “An email from Jack thanking me for his stem cell donation – which saved his life.”
Although Mandelker was born on Nov. 30, he said that he now celebrates a month earlier. “They call Oct. 21 my new birthday,” said Mandelker.
“It was exactly three years prior that I was in the hospital getting Eitan’s stem cells into my body. While my physical strength is fairly diminished and is a work in progress, I’ve never felt better in my strength of my heart and my feeling of gratitude, which makes my everyday experience sweeter than I’ve ever known.”
Ezer Mizion has saved 3,263 lives around the world, including 57 in Canada. “Even though the bone marrow registry is based in Israel and all of these amazing soldiers are registering in Israel, they are saving lives around the world,” said Dena Greenberg, the director of community outreach at Ezer Mizion Canada.
“It’s not just something that is staying in Israel. The idea is to build our bone marrow registry as large as we possibly can, so that nobody has to wait again to have a bone marrow match. Before the Ezer Mizion bone registry, a Jewish person had a seven per cent chance of finding a match right away in the world and that was only 20 years ago. Now there is a 76 per cent chance that they will find their match right away.”
Mandelker lauded the fact that his “life was saved by somebody I didn’t know existed, an organization working behind the scenes that I knew nothing about – that’s a miracle.”
Ezer Mizion is bringing the Jerusalem Market to the Promenade Mall in Thornhill, Ont., from Dec. 1-2. To learn more, visit ezermizion.ca/shuk.