Bone Marrow Donors, Recipients Meet for the First Time

Craig Abitz and his family meet for the first time with Bianca Polay, a 29-year-old med student from Germany whose bone marrow was used to treat the 51-year-old Merrick man suffering from a rare blood cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia or AML.

WOODBURY, NY – Two Long Island bone marrow recipients recently united for the first time with the donors who saved their lives at the 13th annual Celebration of Life Dinner, sponsored by North Shore University Hospital’s Don Monti Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplantation Program at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.

Craig Abitz, 51, of Merrick, is free of a debilitating form of blood cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), thanks to a transplant of bone marrow donated by Bianca Polay, a 29-year-old medical student from Germany. The father of two was diagnosed with AML in 2011 and he had a transplant the next year. Before the dinner, Mr. Abitz had only communicated by email with Ms. Polay, whom he calls his “blood sister.”

Ms. Polay said she learned about marrow transplantation while working full-time as a nurse in 2008.  She says she is delighted that her recipient contacted her and they could get to meet each other in person. “I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for her,” Mr. Abitz said. “There’s no other way to put it.”

A second patient, Lewis Christie, 74, also of Merrick, was shoveling snow in December 2012 when he began to feel ill. At first, everyone thought he had a virus until his doctor called with the terrifying news that his white blood count was extremely high. Tests showed that he had AML. He was saved by a donation from Russ Silverstein, a 46-year-old financial executive from North Carolina.  What could be better than meeting someone like that, who is so altruistic,” Mr. Christie said. “There are not enough words to say it.”

Made possible by the generosity of the Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation, the Celebration of Life Dinner is a highlight for bone marrow donors and recipients, family members, healthcare professionals and supporters.

In June 1972, 16-year-old Don Monti died at North Shore University Hospital of myeloblastic leukemia. Within days of his death, his parents, Tita and Joseph Monti, committed themselves to founding an organization in his memory, dedicated to the mission of finding a cure for cancer. Since establishing the Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation, the Monti family has raised and contributed tens of millions of dollars toward cancer research, education, fellowship and patient care. Today, the program is under the stewardship of Caroline Monti Saladino, whose parents began their mission more than 40 years ago.

Becoming a donor is easy, according to Ruthie-Lu Bayer, MD, the director of the Don Monti Adult Bone Marrow and Transplantation Program.“Anybody can be a donor,” Dr. Bayer said. “Go to the website, called Be the Match, and fill out the information. The international registry will send out kits you can use to get on the registry.”

Ms. Saladino said seeing all the people who have benefitted from the foundation’s work gave her a good feeling. “That in itself is not only an extension of my brother’s life, but just gives me a feeling that all of our hard work and my parents dedication all those years is really paying off,” she said.

Click here to see a video of interviews with the donors and recipients.

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