By Savannah Williams
While players from around the country gritted their teeth, leapt into the air and dove after basketballs in the bracket rounds of the National Hillel Basketball Tournament, one woman stood on the sidelines, preparing to meet the man who saved her life.
Esther Bogin drove from her home in Richmond, Virginia, to be at the games on Saturday night. Her former-nurse-turned-friend, Isabella Dragos, stood at her side, “for moral support,” Dragos said.
Gift of Life, a bone marrow and stem cell donor registry that is one of NHBT’s many sponsors, had arranged for Bogin to meet the person who successfully donated stem cells to her 19 months earlier. Bogin is a survivor of peripheral T-cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare type of cancer.
“I had my first transplant in November of ‘15,” said Bogin. “By March of the following year, when I had just recovered and gone back to work, I felt new tumors growing again, and knew immediately – despite the fact the doctors wanted to go through all the testing – I knew it had come back.”
Bogin said she had signed up as a donor through a different registry when she was younger, so at first, she tried a transplant of her own stem cells. When that didn’t take, and her brother wasn’t a match, Bogin turned to Gift of Life, and the organization chose the younger of two perfect matches – because younger donors’ immune systems typically haven’t been exposed to as many illnesses, she said.
Ari Goldstein, who provided the stem cells Bogin needed, was waiting just down the hall of the Xfinity Center with his parents around 10 p.m., watching teams compete in a second gymnasium. Goldstein graduated from the University of Maryland in 2016 with a degree in physiology and neurobiology.
“I actually signed up [for the registry] at NHBT in 2015, because a buddy of mine was doing the swabbing,” Goldstein said. “I didn’t give it that much thought, to be honest … I’d just like to make it more of something people know about and feel comfortable doing.”
When Bogin and Goldstein finally met after NHBT’s Havdalah ceremony, they pulled each other into a hug. Bogin gave Goldstein a stuffed monkey that hung on her IV pole during treatments to help get her through her sickness, and Goldstein urged the crowd to consider having their cheeks swabbed for the cause.
Bogin said raising awareness has been one of her highest goals after recovering.
“Given how many people gave their time and efforts to saving my life, is I want to let other people know how simple a process it is. The fact that you can save somebody’s life – there’s no better gift,” Bogin said. “How many people get to say that in their lifetime, that they’ve served a higher purpose?”
Bill Begal, chairman of Gift of Life, said bringing the pair together in front of so many college students was a move that could save lives.
“I’ve introduced dozens of people and seen it many more times, it never gets old,” Begal said. “It’s powerful to see what comes of a selfless act.”
Begal’s coworker, Sarah Weiss, graduated from UMD in 2015 with a degree in marketing and supply chain management. She said she was a Gift of Life ambassador as a student, and started with the organization full-time upon graduating.
“We’ve always been active in the Hillel community, and it’s really exciting that we get to be here, introducing a donor and recipient in front of everyone,” Weiss said. “We’ve run hundreds of drives with Hillel, and recruited thousands of donors and facilitated many transplants as a result of Hillel drives, and we’ve swabbed before at NHBT.”
Begal echoed Weiss’ sentiments in his speech to the spectators. He said by working with Hillels around the country, Gift of Life had added almost 58,000 donors to the registry.
“For the recipient, [a donation] is life,” Begal said. “It means holding a granddaughter, walking down a son or daughter’s wedding aisle, graduating college, it could mean anything.”
OU-JLIC’s Rabbi Yonaton Hirschhorn, who donated bone marrow in Israel, said saving lives has always been a core value of the Jewish faith.
“There’s a famous saying … that if you save one life it’s like you’re saving a whole world – because from one person, this whole world was created. We all come from Adam,” Hirschhorn said. “You never know. That one person their children, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, it can be millions of people.”
Avia Sinai, a UMD freshman letters and sciences student, said she came to watch her friends play basketball, but after watching Gift of Life’s introduction, ended up registering herself at their table.
“I didn’t know that was happening! It was nice. I feel like it puts a meaning to the whole tournament,” Sinai said. “It’s an amazing organization to get people involved, and get students involved at an early age, I think it’s very important.”
Bogin was all smiles as she posed for pictures with Goldstein after their meeting.
“It hasn’t been quite one year that I’ve been allowed to be out in public, but everything is completely back to normal for me,” Bogin said. “Despite the fact there are still risks out there, I believe I’m cured. There’s no looking back for me.”