Perfect match: How Birthright alumni saved the lives of 100s of strangers

Birthright Israel and Gift of Life celebrate 15-year partnership of life-saving bone and stem cell marrow transplants.

Bone marrow recipient Diane Gebel and bone marrow donor and Birthright Israel Alumni Jeffrey Altadonna meet for the first time. (photo credit: JONAH LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY)
Bone marrow recipient Diane Gebel and bone marrow donor and Birthright Israel Alumni Jeffrey Altadonna meet for the first time.
Whoever saves a single life is considered by the Talmud to have saved the whole world.
In August 2013, Jeffrey Altadonna, who was on a Birthright trip, was tested at a swab drive to recruit new registry members to become potential bone marrow or stem cell transplant matches at the Jerusalem Gate Hotel.
Nearly five years to the day since he was tested, he was matched to a perfect stranger who needed his life-saving blood stem cells.
It was perfectly ordinary summer day when the 29-year-old accountant from Sherman Oaks, California received the fateful phone call.
A 77-year-old woman from Los Angeles was the perfect stranger that he was deemed to save.
Diane Gebel, a widow from Cyprus, California was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Her husband had passed away right before she was diagnosed with cancer.
For an entire year, the donor and recipient need to remain anonymous to each other, but last week, the time came for the two to finally meet.
The two were honored at the Los Angeles One Huge Night Gala event hosted by Gift of Life Marrow Registry.
In a statement, Birthright Israel explained that the gala “also celebrated the successful 15-year partnership of Birthright Israel and Gift of Life Marrow Registry.”
This partnership has so far resulted in 83,000 Birthright donors joining the registry, with 1,900 matches made between patients and Birthright donors, and 241 life-saving transplants to date.
Prior to the meeting, Altadonna recalled his Birthright trip explaining that it was “really great to see that part of the world, to go to where it’s our given right to visit.
“It had a profound effect on my friendships and cultural Jewish identity – to see that Jewish people are one people, and we have each other’s backs,” he said. “It left me with the feeling that I had backing in anything that I wanted to do in my life. It really felt like a family.”
He recalled that after being swabbed at the drive, he didn’t really think too much of it “because everyone did it.”
“I got the donation call 15 months ago,” he explained, adding that he immediately decided to donate. “I find it very bizarre, that everyone is telling me ‘It’s such a great thing that you are doing.’ For me, it wasn’t an option to say yes or no, it’s just, ‘Okay, let’s do this, I’m a match.’ I’m surprised that more people don’t donate.”
After doing preliminary tests, he took the plunge and donated.
“I had to do it early in the morning, it lasted 6-8 hours – a marathon blood donation – and it was finished,”Altadonna continued. “It didn’t seem all that hard to me.”
He made it clear that this opportunity to help only came about because of the Birthright Israel and Gift of Life collaboration.
“It wasn’t a mission of mine. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to get swabbed, so it only happened as a result of their collaboration,” he said.
In an emotional meeting, the two finally met. Of the meeting, Gebel stressed that she is here “because of my selfless and generous donor.”
“For me, it was easy, I just had an infusion, but for him it was hard,” she said. “It takes a very special person to do that, to actually give the gift of life.”
Gebel said she had been waiting to meet him.
“I didn’t know he was such a good looking guy,” Gebel joked. “I’m here because of him. I was not ready to die. I had too much to live for.”
She stressed that she has changed “because of my new life.”
“I take risks, I live my life fully,” she explained. “My motto has always been that I want to go through life with a Cosmopolitan in one hand and a travel book in the other. Because of my donor, I can do that, so I thank him from the bottom of my heart.”
Altadonna called on others to also take the plunge by getting tested and donating.
“I stand here for my recipient’s valor, for her victory. I ask you to do the same: sit and swab today, so someone can swim and live tomorrow,” he said.
Birthright’s International CEO Gidi Mark said he was “proud of our participants who register as donors and the powerful impact of such a simple choice when they get the call that they are the perfect match for a perfect stranger.
“It is a great honor that Birthright Israel is able to assist in this mission,” he added.