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Of Life and Death

October 27, 2005 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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Because of their family's history, Michael Brecker's sister immediately became alarmed.

"Our mother had died from a disease known as multiple myeloma, a bone-marrow disease that affects your skeleton and causes bones to break easily," explains Emily Brecker-Greenberg. "So when Michael fractured one of his vertebrae, I feared the worst."

All too soon, his sister's fears were realized. Although Brecker - the Cheltenham-born tenor saxophonist considered to be one of the most innovative and influential in the world - did not have the same cancer that affected his mother, he was diagnosed as suffering from a potentially deadly disease known as MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome), a bone-marrow disorder characterized by the underproduction of one or more types of mature blood cells.

There is no known single cause of it, and currently, the only known therapy is a blood stem-cell (bone-marrow) transplant. Each year, some 20,000 new cases of MDS are diagnosed in the United States alone.

Brecker's wife of almost 20 years, Susan, says friends and family immediately joined resources to try to find a suitable donor to save Brecker's life.

Recently, some 700 prospective donors came out to be tested at the Brecker's synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. Unfortunately, no matches were found.

"Still," says Susan Brecker, "it never ceases to amaze me how people will band together in the hopes of helping someone else."

A Limited Pool
And on Oct. 30, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., another drive will be held to try to find a donor for Brecker - this one at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. Greenberg says there are a lot of people to thank for contributing their time and energy to making this drive become a reality, including K.I.'s rabbi, Lance Sussman, and his administrative assistant, Barbara Steinberg, as well as director of the Kehillah of Old York Road, Dr. Jill Magerman, Dr. Susan Kassutto and Dr. Zach Kassutto, and communications director of the JCRC Burt Siegel.

According to Siegel, a longtime jazz aficionado and fan of Brecker, "I got a call from a mutual friend who not only told me about Michael's case, but also pointed out that among Ashkenazi Jews, there is a relatively small pool of potential donors. And while I had some personal sense of urgency regarding Michael, I realized he was not the only person who could benefit from finding suitable donors."

Brecker's family says that no match has yet been found among more than 5 million people on the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. And neither his two children nor his two siblings have matched either.

One of the problems, adds the family, is that a bone-marrow donor must be closely matched to the recipient with the basic cell type nearly identical. And in Brecker's case, the donor would have to be of Eastern European Jewish extraction to match his tissue type.

While finding a suitable donor for Michael would be wonderful, says his wife, "anybody could be helped by a drive like this, and we're anxious to help as many people as we can by getting the word out. This is a personal quest, but also a quest to bring the awareness of stem-cell donation to the fore to allow people to see how easy it is to save a life."

'Truly a Mitzvah'
Siegel says that getting involved in this project has made him more aware of the fact that "we all need to encourage Jews around the country to participate in these kinds of donor programs. Hopefully, we'll find a donor for Michael. But if a donor is found for anybody with similar needs, it will truly be a mitzvah."

According to Greenberg, the actual screening process ranges from something as simple as a blood test to a cotton swab of the cheek.

"We've joined with the Gift of Life Foundation, an organization whose mission is to increase the representation of the Jewish people in the bone-marrow donor pool."

Although his blazing signature saxophone sound has been silenced for now, Brecker is anxious to rejoin his family and begin work again.

As he says to all: "I hope to encourage as many people as possible to get tested, not just to assist me but to help thousands of others who are either facing or will be facing the same challenge with which I'm now confronted."

For more information, call Michael Brecker's management at 212-302-9200 or go to: [email protected].

For more information on bone-marrow or blood stem-cell transplants, visit the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry at: www.nmdp.org, or the Gift of Life Foundation at: www.giftoflife.org.

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