Giving a stranger a second chance at life

Daniel Sheinbein took time away from a grueling year of medical school at the University of Missouri- Columbia to drive to Cincinnati and donate stem cells to a total stranger.

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

Mizzou medical student and Ladue high grad Daniel Sheinbein gave a 61-year-old stranger the best holiday gift imaginable. On Dec. 30, 26-year-old Sheinbein spent more than six hours at a Cincinnati blood center donating stem cells to help the stranger who is battling Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“One of the most important values in Judaism is to save another life, if you have the opportunity,” said Sheinbein, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at erstwhile Shaare Zedek and whose family now belongs to Congregation B’nai Amoona. “To give of ourselves and possibly heal or save others is part of our duty as a Jewish member of society.”

Sheinbein explained that in 2016 he attended a fundraiser in New York for an organization called Gift of Life, a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. Gift of Life facilitates transplants for children and adults suffering from life-threatening illnesses, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers and genetic diseases. The organization was begun in 1991 by a Jewish man named Jay Feinberg, who at age 22, was told he would need a bone marrow transplant to survive his leukemia, but he had no matching donor in the registry. Family and friends, none of whom matched, arranged for massive screenings around the country and in Israel where potential donors could be tested. After four years and 60,000 people, a young woman finally matched for Feinberg and he received a successful transplant. 

At the New York fundraiser, Sheinbein agreed to have the inside of his cheek swabbed and his name added to the registry. He didn’t think much about it until August when he received a call saying he was a match for a 61-year-old man. 

“The call caught me by surprise,” said Sheinbein, who is in his third year of medical school and plans to specialize in psychiatry. “I wasn’t expecting the call to come during a pandemic.”

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Sheinbein was first asked to do a confirmatory match cheek swab and then preliminary blood work a few weeks before donation to make sure he was cleared to donate from a health standpoint. He was also informed that he could travel to either Boca Raton or New York for the stem cells donation. All expenses related to the procedure, including air travel, accommodations and meals, would be incurred by Gift of Life.

In early December, three weeks before Sheinbein was slated to fly to Florida, he became concerned about the steady increase in the number of COVID cases and deaths. As much as he wanted to donate, he preferred not to board a plane to do so.

“There was a lot going on in my brain. On the one hand, this is my most critical year of medical school, when your grades and clinical practicums matter the most because next year I’ll be applying for my residency,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk getting sick or injuring myself so that I would have to miss time or possibly be delayed by another year.

“On the other hand, we often forget during COVID that there are still people with cancer and other chronic illnesses, and they need the same level of care as before COVID. We can’t overlook those patients who need critical care despite the pandemic.”

After calling Gift of Life and explaining his concerns about air travel, Sheinbein learned he could donate at a blood center in Cincinnati, which is roughly a five-hour drive each way from St. Louis.

For five days leading up to the donation, Sheinbein was injected with Neupogen, which helps to stimulate stem cell production. His father, who is a physician, gave Sheinbein the injections.

“I had pain in my bones, especially my legs and hips because those are areas where a lot of stem cells are replicated,” he explained. “But the actual process wasn’t too bad. You get used to it.”

Through a procedure called apheresis, Sheinbein’s blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming stem cells. The remaining blood then was returned to him through his other arm.

Sheinbein hopes that one day he can contact his recipient. The only information Gift of Life is authorized to release is the patient’s diagnosis, age and sex. If both donor and recipient consent, then personal information can be exchanged after one year in most, but not all, cases.

“I’m really glad it all worked out,” said Sheinbein, who noted that young men are the strongest donors. According to Gift of Life, over 85 percent of transplants are from donors between the ages of 18 and 35. Since 2004, the organization has partnered with Taglit Birthright Israel, which offers young adult Jews a free, 10-day educational trip to Israel, the chance to join the registry by being swabbed during the trip. Sheinbein said both of his siblings were swabbed during their Birthright trips.

“Sure it would have been nice to go to Florida and spend time in a nice hotel at the beach,” he added. “But I’m hopeful I was able to help save a life, even without the perks.”

For more information about Gift of Life, go to giftoflife.org.