A ‘second chance at life’: Bone marrow recipient organizes drive at Beth Shalom
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A ‘second chance at life’: Bone marrow recipient organizes drive at Beth Shalom

Blood drive and bone marrow registry to be held Jan. 28

Shari Woldenberg (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Shari Woldenberg (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Shari Woldenberg was a young mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4, living in a Chicago suburb when, out of the blue, she felt an unusual pain in her spine.

“It was the craziest thing,” she recalled. “It took a couple of months, really, to get a diagnosis.”

The news was devastating: stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s large B cell lymphoma. And it came around the time of 9/11.

“That’s how I remember it,” Woldenberg said. “The whole world was falling apart.”

The disease began in her vertebrae, then spread quickly to her brain. She was told she had a 20% chance of survival.

That was 22 years ago.

Thanks to her “amazing doctor,” Steven Rosen at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and a stem cell transplant — thanks to her sister, Beth MacCrindle — Woldenberg is in good health, living in Pittsburgh and hoping to inspire others to consider joining the Gift of Life bone marrow registry.

Community members will have the opportunity to do so on Sunday, Jan. 28, from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom during its quarterly blood drive.

Gift of Life is a national nonprofit registry that facilitates transplants for patients in the U.S. and abroad.

Woldenberg manages adult education programming at Beth Shalom as its Derekh coordinator. She organized the Jan. 28 drive along with the congregation’s Men’s Club and Vitalant, a blood collection nonprofit.

The Steel City newcomer — she moved here in 2022 from Rochester, New York, to marry Pittsburgher Mark Frisch — knows how fortunate she was to have found a stem cell match in her sister.

“She saved my life,” Woldenberg said.

MacCrindle, who was living in Cleveland, didn’t think twice about being a donor for her sister. She headed to Northwestern in Chicago for the transplant.

The process was simple, she said.

“They put something on my jugular vein on my neck,” MacCrindle recalled. “I’m not saying it was comfortable, but all I kept thinking about was, ‘Wow, this is nothing compared to what my sister is going through.’ And they hooked me up to a machine. It took two or three days.”

“Donating stem cells is closer to donating blood than it is to donating an organ or something,” MacCrindle explained. “It’s not very invasive at all. I don’t have any kind of scar or anything from it.”

Registering to be a potential donor is not invasive, either. All it takes is a cheek swab. Anyone 18 to 35 years old and in general good health can join the registry for free by either completing a cheek swab at an in-person drive or ordering a kit sent to their home.

MacCrindle encourages everyone who qualifies to consider registering.

“It’s just a few days of your life to save somebody’s life,” she said.

Before coming to Pittsburgh, Woldenberg worked as an attorney and as an endowments associate at Jewish Federation in Chicago and has served on multiple school boards and federation boards.

Since her diagnosis and recovery, she has been committed to advocacy and community work, everything from writing grants for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to lobbying Congress to just talking to other patients.

Because tissue type is inherited, a person’s best chance of finding a genetic match is with those of a similar race or ethnicity. That is to say, if a Jew of Ashkenazi descent needs a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, their best likelihood of finding a match is with an Ashkenazi donor.

Each year, about 18,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with blood cancers or other life-threatening illnesses for which a stem cell transplant is the best treatment option, according to the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center. About 70% of those patients do not have a family member who is a match and must rely on an unrelated donor.

In addition to registering people to be bone marrow donors, another aim of Beth Shalom’s drive is to help keep the blood supply in Pittsburgh high in case blood needs to be transported to Israel during its war with Hamas. Vitalant’s efforts are part of a tenure Contingency Agreement in place since 2018 between U.S. blood centers and Magen David Adom.

Woldenberg, valuing every day as a gift, is focused on giving back.

“I’ve always thought that I’ve been a given second chance of life,” Woldenberg said. “And that’s one of the lines that Gift of Life uses. It’s also something that I feel so personally — that I’ve been given a second chance and I value every day, and I’m just full of gratitude for everything.

“And here I am in Pittsburgh with a second marriage, and that’s also a second chance of life, and helping the Jewish community through Derekh. Helping strengthen the Jewish community is something that I’ve discovered is my life purpose.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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