Michal Levine wanted to go to college in New York, but her parents were completely opposed to the idea. She was born and raised in Florida and went to a right-leaning yeshiva from which most of the graduates just did not go to college. It was that simple.
Eventually, though, her parents gave in, and that saved Yaakov Hagler’s life. Hagler is a well-liked businessman who resides here in the Five Towns with his family. In addition to his busy work schedule, he is a ba’al tefillah on the High Holy Days at Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere and an in-demand teacher of bar mitzvah lessons, including instruction in reading from the Torah and leading the congregation in tefillos.
A short time before Pesach in 2004, Yaakov was playing a pickup basketball game with friends when, he says, his legs just gave out and he collapsed to the court floor. His friends helped him up and busily inquired whether he was hurt, suffered a leg injury, a sprain, cramp, or anything similar. No, he said, he seemed to be fine but could not understand why his legs would just give out like that.
A visit to his doctor a few days later and some blood tests revealed a staggering diagnosis—leukemia. There was no family history and no prior symptoms that would have indicated that anything was amiss. He says that until that point in his life he never had any medical issues and was never in a hospital except on the occasion that he and his wife had a baby.
This story comes to the fore at this point in time not only because it is both dramatic and inspiring, but because the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation will be hosting their annual Long Island Walk-a-Thon on September 14 in the sprawling Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York, to raise much-needed funds.
The foundation was established in 1990 when Jay Feinberg, a New Yorker, was diagnosed with leukemia and told by doctors at the time that his only likely chance of survival was to find a match for a bone-marrow transplant.
The Feinberg family began an international drive to find a match for Jay, an endeavor that repeatedly was met with disappointment. Over a four-year period, the best they could find was a partial match that, according to doctors, would be taking a chance on the possibility of success.
After several years and continued frustration, one of Feinberg’s friends in Milwaukee organized a bone-marrow drive at which the last person tested was found to be a perfect match for Feinberg—after 55,000 such tests has been performed. The young lady, a teenager at the time, donated bone marrow that saved Mr. Feinberg’s life.
The Gift of Life Foundation has tested almost a quarter-million people in 25 years around the Jewish world and has been instrumental in providing lifesaving bone marrow for over 2,700 leukemia patients. The necessity for just such a registry became clear when it was revealed that the most likely matches would be found amongst people with similar genetics, most often family members. However, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the tragic curtailment of extended families, the pool of such potential donors was seriously depleted.
Each of these human-life dramas can be spun into a riveting tale to captivate and move readers, keeping them awe-inspired by the quiet goodness that genuinely exists within a world where usually the inefficiencies and malevolent ways of people are highlighted. Also woven into these very real-life stories is the intriguing fashion in which G‑d has chosen to run this mysterious world that we live in.
For Yaakov Hagler of Woodmere, Michal Levine of North Miami Beach became his literal lifeline through enthralling circumstances.
Michal did not just want to go to college in New York; she wanted to attend Barnard and eventually attend medical school. According to Hagler, however, when she arrived at Barnard she was less than pleased with the dormitory arrangements and facilities, and she sought out living quarters uptown in Washington Heights. As she explains it, it was around ten years ago when she saw an ad in Washington Heights about bone-marrow testing for a four-year-old Israeli girl who desperately needed a transplant. The testing was being held at Yeshiva University, just a short distance from her apartment.
“I was always interested in science and medicine, and I was anxious to help as well,” she said as we talked on Monday of this week.
She explains that when she arrived at YU, she looked through the glass doors and saw only men there, so she was somewhat apprehensive about stepping into the large room in which the testing was taking place. Apparently, one of the YU students noticed her hesitation and went out to meet her and assure her that she was certainly welcome to be tested. She describes the procedure as simply swabbing a Q-Tip in her cheek.
At this point, Yaakov Hagler was in remission but functioning with the understanding that he would need a transplant sometime in the near future. A few months after being tested, Michal was called by Gift of Life with a request that she do some further testing, to which she was very amenable. It seemed that the testing indicated promising signs of her being a perfect match for one of the many people waiting for just such a gift from heaven through an angel of mercy.
“When I found out that I was a match for someone, my father called Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, at Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Israel, a close friend of the family, to discuss the issue with him,” Michal says. They analyzed the matter from multiple angles and concluded that there was minimal health risk, and both the rabbi and her parents consented to her going forward, she says. Her mother, she adds, told her at one point that she was an adult and that she and her father had no problem with her making her own decision.
When she found out that she was a match, all she was told was that it was for a 46-year-old male. The law in New York dictates that neither party can know the identity of the other for a year after the procedure is performed. Michal says it did not matter to her who the recipient was and that she was determined to go forward with donating her bone marrow regardless. She says that when she later learned that it was a husband and father from Woodmere, she was additionally elated.
Yaakov Hagler today looks back at the situation as having been wrought with miracles from the outset. He says that despite the encouraging news that a donor had been found for him relatively soon after he took ill, it was still quite a harrowing experience. “A bone-marrow transplant requires that your body is taken to its weakest level prior to receiving the donor’s marrow,” he says.
Michal adds that she was told about certain side effects like tiredness, weakness, and nausea, so when she felt those symptoms she was not too concerned. They both experienced a routine recovery and it was shortly thereafter that Yaakov was declared by doctors to have no signs of leukemia in his system.
A year later it came down to the matter of meeting. Michal says that she is a private person for the most part but was still anxious to make the acquaintance of the family her selflessness had kept intact. They met at a midtown Manhattan restaurant and became quick friends. Talking with Yaakov, it becomes understandably clear that all words are inadequate when it comes to the matter of expressing gratitude to someone who saved your life.
At the time Michal was still single and became a fairly steady guest at the Hagler home on Shabbos and yom tov. She married a few years ago, and after receiving her doctorate in molecular biology and genetics from Johns Hopkins University, she is now known as Dr. Michal Millrod. There is no question, she says, that her interest in research into stem cells was heavily influenced by these events.
In addition to visiting the Haglers throughout the year, she makes certain to be in town on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to hear Yaakov lead the davening at Aish Kodesh. She says that she is both moved and inspired by his davening. “Our mutual experience gives his davening for me a lot of depth,” she says. “I think he understands the issues of life and death better than most.”
And when she got married in Baltimore a few years ago, Yaakov Hagler sang under the chuppah. He describes it as an emotional but very important moment for him. He adds that he knew very few people at the wedding and after the chuppah people came up to him to ask who he was and what his connection to the kallah was. “I am a blood relative,” he explained. ϖ
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