Woman meets Jewish St. Louis bone marrow donor who saved her life



Eight years ago, when Rebecca “Becca” Berg went on a Birthright trip to Israel, her group met with volunteers from Gift of Life. The nonprofit runs a bone marrow and blood stem cell registry that helps facilitate transplants for children and adults suffering from life-threatening illnesses, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers, and genetic diseases.

Berg was asked if she would be willing to sign up for the registry and be swabbed, in the hopes that she might someday be a match for someone in grave need of bone marrow or stem cells.

“I got a call four years later (in 2017), when I was at work,” said Berg, now 29, who graduated from the Whitfield School and attended Congregation Shaare Emeth while growing up in St. Louis.

“I had completely forgotten that I had done the swab. I didn’t recognize the phone number calling me, so I kept letting it go to voice mail.

“I finally answered, and they introduced themselves as being from Gift of Life. They had found someone who I could potentially be a match for, but they weren’t 100% certain. They would need to do a few more tests.”

While Gift of Life told Berg she wasn’t obligated to go forward, they did let her know the recipient was a woman in her 30s battling leukemia.

“They really don’t give you more information than her age and what type of cancer,” said Berg.

She called her parents to discuss the donation with them. Realizing that she didn’t have a lot of information on what it entails, she agreed to meet with a doctor who talked to her about the process.

“At that point, I agreed to move ahead,” she said.

After having her blood tested, it was confirmed she was a match. She also learned that the woman who would receive her bone marrow was very sick and needed the transplant as soon as possible.

Gift of Life flew Berg and her parents to Boston, where the extraction took place. Under anesthesia, the bone marrow was taken from her pelvic bone over the course of several hours. Volunteers from Gift of Life stayed with Berg’s parents – and Berg — throughout the process.

“Afterwards, for a few days, there was some pain but after a month I was completely back to normal, as if nothing happened,” said Berg, who works in sales for a cosmetics company.

She went back to her life in Chicago, where she continues to live, but thought constantly about the woman who received her bone marrow and wondered how she was doing.

“You have to wait a full year before you can even give your consent to give out your information,” Berg explained. “I thought about (her) all the time. At that point, you’re so connected to the person, and you want to know what is going on in their lives and if they are OK. Because it’s not always guaranteed that (the donation) will work.”

Berg gave Gift of Life permission to give out her information in the hopes that she someday could meet her recipient. The thing is, Berg explained, the only information Gift of Life receives is the recipient’s gender, age and diagnosis. More personal information, including names and address, come from the hospital where the donation took place. Berg’s recipient received her bone marrow donation in Maryland.

“Two, three, four years go by and all of a sudden, the fourth year, I got a call from Gift of Life saying we have the name and an email address of your recipient,” Berg recalled. “Within an hour, I received an email from her.”

Her name was Rosa Warsaw, and she thanked Berg profusely and told her how grateful she was. Warsaw also told Berg about her family – she is a married mom with two kids – as well as about her job as a teacher and how she is doing with her cancer.

“After that, we swapped numbers and started texting to get to know each other better,” said Berg, adding that the two desperately wanted to meet in person but between COVID and their busy schedules, it looked as if the soonest they could pull off a visit would be summer 2022.

“Then Gift of Life reached out to us the day before Thanksgiving and asked, “What are the chances you could come to D.C. on Sunday to meet your recipient?” Berg said. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, as you may remember, was the first night of Hanukkah. And so, the two came face-to-face for the first time at the 2021 National Menorah Lighting Celebration on the Ellipse at the White House, with Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, in attendance.

“They had us completely separate backstage until we were introduced,” said Berg. “It was very overwhelming – unlike any feeling I ever felt in my life.

“We hugged for a long time. They had us each say a little something. We were both kind of tearing up.”

Warsaw told the crowd how when she was diagnosed, she had two young boys and a husband and had to wait months before a match was found while she got sicker. That same year, her brother died of a heart attack. She said she was thankful that her parents didn’t have to lose two children in the same year.

But above all, she thanked her donor and her donor’s family, writing later on Facebook: “Becca, I want to thank you with all of my being for saving my life .  . . I am humbled and thankful for all my blessings and to my new extended family.”

After the menorah lighting, Warsaw and Berg’s families went to dinner together, where they talked nonstop and agreed to get together in the near future.

As for whether Berg would donate again, well I could barely get the question out before she responded with a resounding yes.

“I understand that it’s scary when you don’t know what the process is,” said Berg, who has become an advocate for Gift of Life and encouraging people to sign up for the registry. “But when you realize that you are the one person that another person is relying on to save their life, it’s hard not to move forward. And at the end of the day, it was nothing. Rosa went through procedures after procedures for a very long time and for me it was less than 12 hours.”

For more information about bone marrow and blood cell donation, go to giftoflife.org