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Bernard Weiner battled a blood cancer for 12 years but by then, the disease had progressed to the point that only one treatment option was left: He needed a bone marrow transplant to stay alive.

Weiner, 70, of Troy got the life-saving treatment for myelodysplastic disorder in March 2017, after the Gift of Life's bone marrow registry matched him with a compatible donor.

Until recently, Weiner didn't know who to thank for his second chance. He finally met his benefactor, Judah Berger, 22, of New York last week at a symposium for Gift of Life's Campus Ambassadors Program in Boca Raton, Florida. 

"I gave him a big hug," Weiner said. "Each of us gave a little speech. He is an amazing young man. He just wanted to help people."

Berger was elated as well, though he downplayed his gift.

"It was nice to finally put a face to the name of the person I donated to. It was really surreal," he said. "I didn’t do that much, I just sat in a chair. It was a chance to feel heroic without actually doing anything."

The transplant process stipulates that neither the donor nor the recipient can know who the other is until a year has passed. After that period, Gift of Life initiated the  process that led to Weiner getting in touch with his donor. 

Gift of Life flew Weiner and his wife to Boca Raton and paid their expenses so he could meet his donor at a dinner.

Four years ago, neither man could have envisioned the events that led to their meeting.

In most states, you have to be at least 18 to sign up for Gift of Life's registry. Joining is simple: Swab your cheek and submit a blood sample.

Berger said he thought it was "cool to be old enough" to do something most of his friends weren't old enough to do, so at age 18, while living in Atlanta, he got swabbed. 

"I signed up without any thought that I would get called. It's a one-in-a-thousand chance, like winning the lottery," Berger said. "But three years later, I was getting off a plane when they called me back and left me a voicemail: ‘You might be a match.’ It turns out I was a full match."

The process leading to Weiner's transplant wasn't quite that easy for him.

"In order to have (the transplant), I first had to have a round of full-body radiation and a week of chemotherapy to kill my bad bone marrow cells," he said. "They had to wipe my bone marrow clean. The transplant for me was really a simple process. It was like a blood infusion."

Weiner's transplant took place on March 22, 2017, a date he and Gift of Life refer to as his second birthday. 

"I’ve got two birthdays now: My transplant date and my regular birthday," he said.

Over the next couple months after the transplant, Weiner said he felt fine and was able to return to his normal activities. But then he regressed into leukemia.

"I did not need another transplant," he said. "They did another round of strong chemotherapy, but I’m sure that Judah’s cells helped me to fight off the leukemia."

According to Jay Feinberg, president and CEO of Gift of Life, becoming a marrow donor has become a much simpler process. However, matching a recipient to a donor is more complicated than just finding people with the same blood type.

"About 70 percent (of patients) do not have a family member that’s a close enough match, so they have to go to strangers," he said. "Only 20 percent of donors actually donate bone marrow. The same stem cells found in the marrow can also be taken from the circulating bloodstream."

The donor and recipient must have matching human leukocyte antigens, a protein found throughout the body, and Feinberg said they look to white blood cells to find a proper match.

The process of donating the stem cells is a simple transfusion, according to Feinberg. Movies exaggerate the process of marrow donation for dramatic effect, he said, which scares off some people from being donors.

"Although to this day we don’t know how it happens, the stem cells migrate to hollow cavities of bones. They begin to produce healthy blood cells, and they produce new immune system," he said. "To join the (donor) registry, it used to require a blood test. Now it’s just a cheek swab. If people knew it was a cheek swab and blood from your arm, I think more people would be eager to do it."

Weiner plans to stay in touch with Gift of Life.

"I’m part of what they call their family now. I’m going to keep in contact with Judah. I’m hoping somewhere down the line that Judah gets to meet my whole family. He saved my life."

nryan@detroitnews.com

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