(Courtesy of Ezer Mizion) Countless acts of heroism have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare workers, Hatzalah members and other essential workers are continuing to risk their safety to help others. One of these healthcare heroes is Mishel Zrian.
Mishel Zrian is a medical courier for Ezer Mizion’s bone marrow donor registry. Registries and transplant centers around the world have been struggling to navigate the complicated delivery process with the new coronavirus restrictions. When flights to Israel became scarce, Ezer Mizion’s transplants were sent to Europe via Belgium by cargo flights and then driven to their final destination. Flying in a cargo hold is not comparable to the comforts of even the lower economy section on a passenger flight.
Zrian left Israel for what was supposed to be a brief journey in mid-March. He was told upon his return that he would need to remain in quarantine for 14 days. Ezer Mizion appealed to the Israeli Health Ministry and the National Security Council and managed to secure Zrian a unique entry permit to the country. It allowed him to enter Israel as long as he didn’t leave the airport. He was also given special clearance to enter the US since he was labeled an essential worker.
47-year-old Zrian hasn’t seen his wife and two teenage sons since March. He has been living in airports across Israel and the US. With airport restaurants closed, he has been living on fast food and lounge meals. His self-sacrifice is indescribable, and Ezer Mizion could not be more grateful for his dedication. He is a large piece of the bone marrow donor/recipient puzzle, and he knows that lives depend on him.
For a cancer patient to qualify for a bone marrow transplant, they need to find a donor who meets their exact biological criteria. This is often a difficult task, and many of these sick patients don’t have ample time to wait. Ezer Mizion’s mission is to find the match as quickly as possible. Before Ezer Mizion’s bone marrow registry was founded, only 8% of Jewish cancer patients found their match. Now, with over a million potential donors in its registry, an astounding 76% do.
Ezer Mizion was founded in 1979 in the small apartment of Rabbi Chananya Chollak and his wife. It was their first year of marriage, he was learning in kollel, and they were busy helping those in need. His wife cooked meals for families who had a relative in the hospital, and Rabbi Chollak delivered them. The organization expanded and eventually they needed a bigger space. Their volunteer network skyrocketed, and they launched several health initiatives, one of them being what is now the largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world.
In 1996, Motti Zisser, the husband of Dr. Bracha Zisser (now founder and director of Ezer Mizion’s bone marrow registry), fell ill and needed a bone marrow transplant. They were prompted by their own experience to contact Ezer Mizion to set up the bone marrow registry. At that time, Ezer Mizion had 5,000 donors registered, and they were determined to fill the registry with Jewish donors to save Jewish lives.
To expand its registry, Ezer Mizion forged a partnership with the Israel Defense Forces in 2005. Swabbing 50-60,000 young, healthy and genetically diverse IDF recruits has allowed Ezer Mizion to maintain the youngest registry in the world, which has a direct, positive impact on patient outcomes. Today, over 60% of the potential stem cell donors in its registry come from the IDF. Another advantage of swabbing this cohort of potential donors is that they typically remain in the registry for up to 40 years that they are viable potential donors. Because Jewish patients generally require Jewish bone marrow donors, the registry is a vital resource for thousands of sick Jews.
About 100 illnesses can be treated with a transplant. Recipients are required to be nearly identical matches with their donors for markers known as HLA proteins. Although close family offers the best chance, only about 30% of patients find compatible bone marrow within their families. Because of the vast number of possible HLA combinations, the probability of two unrelated individuals matching each other is extremely low. Chances for a match increase significantly if the patient and potential donor share the same ethnic background. Because Jews have lived in isolated communities for centuries, they are more genetically related to each other than non-Jews, which increases their chances of finding a donor. (Donating used to require surgery, but now all it entails is a procedure where they filter stem cells from the blood)
In 2009 there was an enormous drive to find a donor for a little girl. The organizers didn’t anticipate the massive number of people who would show up at each testing station. No one wanted to miss out on this opportunity to save this little girl’s life. In the end, over 65,000 new potential donors were registered. Many lives were saved as a result of this record-breaking drive.
Ezer Mizion is proud that the coronavirus pandemic has not deterred the registry from continuing to grow, and has only catalyzed acts of chesed and kindness. This is the case because of people like Moshe Israeli. At age 15, Israeli was diagnosed with bone cancer. During those difficult times, Ezer Mizion was there to help him and his family with food deliveries, medicine runs, hospital visits and more. Almost 30 years later, Israeli manages Ezer Mizion’s Petah Tikvah branch. Recently he organized 2,800+ volunteers to help the elderly, the immuno-compromised and others in desperate need.
“We can’t draw blood from people infected with the virus, so many people agreed to quarantine for two weeks just so they can donate,” said Dr. Zisser. None of the stem cell deliveries over the past few months have missed their critical deadline. She believes that these inspiring acts of kindness are what will get us through these trying times.