Giving the Gift of Life
Bomber football program's 2011 bone marrow drive leads to a successful transplant
By Mike Warwick
Adam Bienstock '13 started playing football as a freshman at Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, New Jersey. He played for four years then played as a freshman and sophomore at Ithaca College before deciding to hang up his cleats. His career was similar to those of the hundreds of thousands who play college football and the millions who play at the high school level: he never played on a championship team and he never got carried off the field in celebration. An offensive and defensive tackle, he never scored a touchdown (although he did get to carry the ball once during his high school career).
But he did save a life. Because of football.
In January, Adam, a junior, completed the process of bone marrow donation.
That process started last April when Adam was one of 350 participants in a Be The Match bone marrow registry drive sponsored by the Ithaca football team.
Seven months later, Adam underwent a seven-hour procedure that collected his white blood cells.
The end result: a 50-year-old man suffering from cancer was given a chance at life after receiving Adam's cells.
“You would hope that someone would do something like this for you.”
That's how Adam summed up his involvement in the bone marrow donation program – involvement that included weeks of tests, shots, and other preparatory work leading up to the harvesting procedure.
Mike Welch '73, Adam's coach, summed it up differently: “Adam Bienstock is a hero.”
In 18 years as head coach at his alma mater, Welch has consistently made sure that his players are involved in community service efforts. From football mini-camps for local children and car washes and other fundraisers for the local activities center to regular team-wide visits to a nearby veteran affairs hospital, the Bombers have plenty of opportunities for giving back.
Last spring, Ithaca joined dozens of other college football programs as participants in the National Bone Marrow Donor Program's Get in the Game – Save a Life program.
"Our captains and our seniors took full responsibility for the organizing and implementing the program,” Welch explained. “This was our first year as participants in the program, and our team signed up over 350 donors. The normal total for first year teams has been 250."
Donors from those 350 participants who were potential matches were contacted a few months later. Adam was one of them.
“I heard from them around the middle of October. They shipped a blood test to our health center and the people there administered it to me. A couple weeks later I heard from them again – I was the best match they had out of all the donors at our drive.”
What followed was a battery of general health tests, blood work, and general monitoring all building to the extraction procedure. Over Ithaca College's winter break, Adam traveled from his New Jersey home to the New York Blood Center for the first shot in the final preparation. That shot stimulated Adam's immune system to produce more marrow stem cells to help increase the yield for the ensuing harvest.
“They gave me the first shot and then had me wait a few hours to see if there were any reactions,” said Adam, who added that the only side effect was some lower back pain.
A nurse came to Adam's house to administer another shot on each of the next five days. The next day Adam traveled to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City for the final procedure. Seated in a comfortable chair, Adam spent over four hours sitting as still as he could while the harvesting procedure took place. Adam's blood was drawn out of a needle in one arm, sent through a machine that extracted the marrow stem cells, and then returned to his body through his other arm.
While the process was going on, Adam's only problem was discomfort (“I couldn't scratch when I got an itch”). Once the harvesting process was complete, he was kept for observation; he found that for a little while he couldn't move his arms after keeping them so still for such a long time. “Otherwise I didn't really feel any different.”
Michael Garbin, upstate New York recruiter for Be The Match, explained why the contributions of Adam – and thousands of other donors – are so important. “Patients who need a bone marrow cell transplant have exhausted every other medical option – this transplant is their last chance. For that 50-year-old recipient, Adam has literally given him the gift of life.”
A couple of weeks after Adam returned to school for the spring semester, he attended the football team's postseason banquet. After awards like outstanding lineman, most improved back, and the Bomber attitude award were given out, Welch showed a short video promoting the American Football Coaches Association's involvement in the Be The Match program.
Then he called Adam to the podium. Welch told the story of Adam's donation, and when he presented his former player with a plaque, the crowd of nearly 400 responded with a standing ovation and the longest applause of the night.
“I would have wanted to participate in the bone marrow drive anyway,” said Bienstock. “But I was definitely more motivated with it being a team activity.” The Bombers' participation in community service efforts like this “really brings the team together,” Bienstock confirmed. “When people are put in a different environment, you see their true colors.”
Those true colors were on display during Ithaca's bone marrow drive. "The event coordinator from Be The Match made a special point of telling me that our players were the best group of young men that he has worked with in the program," Welch said with obvious pride in his entire program.
Especially one member.
"Adam donated his bone marrow, and now a 50-year-old man is on his way to recovery from cancer. Adam saved his life. Adam is a hero."