The army confronts a new kind of enemy

IDF soldiers have been asked upon induction to give bone marrow samples, with extraordinary results

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IDF recruits at a bone marrow registration (photo credit: courtesy Ezer Mizion)
IDF recruits at a bone marrow registration (photo credit: courtesy Ezer Mizion)

They come in skinny jeans and sneakers, sweatsuits and eyebrow rings. Stunned into silence and herded together by a stern female corporal, they shuffle off the bus and into the army’s induction center. The process has roughly a dozen stops and at the end they emerge in comically large and firmly pressed uniforms. As in every army they are subjected to a haircut and a mug shot; their fingerprints are taken; their dental records are registered; they’re inoculated, photographed, assigned to a unit, and issued two sets of shirts, two sets of trousers, a belt, socks, underwear and two pairs of boots. But unlike anywhere else, these new draftees are also asked if they’d be willing to provide a bone marrow sample, or, as the promotional video explains, “to save a life.”

The collaboration between the IDF and the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry has recently pushed Israel to the highest per capita registry rate in the world. Nearly seventy percent of draftees agree to provide a sample. The implications of this have been profound. Last year fifty percent of all Israeli bone marrow donors were soldiers. In fact, although the numbers have not yet been fully crunched, soldiers appear to be roughly one and a half times as likely as other Israeli donors to be suitable matches for those in need.

According to Dr. Bracha Zisser, the founder and director of Ezer Mizion, the success rate is uncanny. “It has to do with the fact that they are young and largely male and that they are the product of a Jewish society filled with interdenominational marriage, but we don’t yet fully understand it,” she said.

This has implications for Jews the world over.

The International Bone Marrow Registry in Leyden, Holland, has some 14 million blood marrow samples, but for Jews, and any other distinct ethnic group, there is virtually no chance of finding a bone marrow match outside of one’s immediate family and larger circle of ethnicity. And the percentage of Jewish samples in the Leyden registry was, prior to Ezer Mizion’s inclusion, frighteningly small.

Soldiers are pushing the registry ever more swiftly toward its goal of one million samples, at which point virtually every Jew in the world would be able to find a donor match. Currently 40 percent of all bone marrow donations given through Ezer Mizion go to Jews living abroad.

This means that Israeli soldiers are not only defending their country but also the Jewish people, said Maj. Gen. (res) Elazar Stern, the officer who initiated the program.

A bone marrow transplant is, in essence, a stem cell donation. Those suffering from leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a host of other blood diseases are no longer capable of producing healthy blood cells. Their bone marrow is under attack from the disease and decimated by chemotherapy, and often their only chance of survival is through a genetically compatible donor.

In 1998, after trying unsuccessfully to find a match for Moshe Schayek, a young man from Afula in northern Israel, Zisser and her husband Moti, owner of Elbit Imaging Ltd., founded the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry. They conducted mass drives, at times collecting upwards of 60,000 samples for a single patient, but still felt that they were unable to reach certain populations. Dr. Zisser believed that if she could enlist the army they would get samples from a diverse and healthy swath of the population and, no less important, the samples would have a shelf life of forty years.

The IDF was not easily swayed.

“I bounced around the halls of the army for four years, dozens of offices, and in the end I always landed across the desk from some legal authority who explained to me why it was impossible,” Zisser said during a recent visit to the donor registry, which is housed in the Oranit Guest Home for children with cancer in Petach Tikva.

By the summer of 2005 she’d given up hope. Then a friend contacted Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, the head of IDF Manpower at the time.

Stern himself was a donor and he supported the cause but he told the friend that it wasn’t worth pursuing. The army authorities were dead set against it.

“I’d tried to get the army to ask draftees to consider signing organ donation cards and was told that it was improper and impossible,” Stern said from his office at Tlalim Strategy, a planning and consulting group for educational organizations.

After standing by the bedside of an Israeli boy, the son of a noncommissioned officer, who slowly expired right before his eyes, Stern decided to invite Zisser to his office. Since he knew precisely what she wanted, he skipped the preliminaries and called the IDF’s chief doctor, its chief legal counsel, and the commander of the induction base to his office.

“Each one of them said why the army couldn’t do it,” he recalled. One contended that soldiers at the time of induction were under too much stress to discern between orders and requests. Another said there were other organizations that collected bone marrow samples and it would be wrong to give preference to Ezer Mizion. And one, the commander of the base, said there was simply no way to insert an additional station into the induction process.

Stern thanked them and told them that the process would begin in three months’ time, and that if need be he expected them to be able to defend him in a court of law.

“I told them that I like bananas,” he said, smiling broadly. “And in the worst case scenario I knew they’d fit nicely between prison bars.”

That’s proven unnecessary. Stern’s picture still stands at the bone marrow donation booth at the IDF’s induction center. Alongside it are shots of the commander of the air force, the former chief of staff, the defense minister and the two chief rabbis. It is one of the projects of which the army is most proud. In fact, during the Second Lebanon War an F-16 pilot was found to be a match for a two-year-old girl with leukemia -– a non-Israeli citizen –- and was given leave to go to the hospital to donate his bone marrow even though it sidelined him for days from the war.

In general, the higher the caliber of the soldier, the more likely he or she is to donate, said Dorit Hazan, the director of Ezer Mizion’s IDF station. “A few weeks ago we had flight school candidates in here and 94 percent of them consented.”

The numbers were considerably lower during a recent visit. “What is that, a needle?” asked one draftee still clad in a Superman sweatshirt. “No way. Can’t do it. I’m scared.”

But Tzvi Lox, a religious staff sergeant in the Kfir Brigade and a resident of Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood, knew he wanted to be registered even before going in to the army. Like all recruits he’d received a pamphlet in the mail prior to induction explaining the procedure. It was signed by Zisser and made clear that both the sample and any possible future donation are voluntary and not a mandatory part of the draft.

Four months later, while on leave from basic training, the half-Brazilian, half-Israeli infantryman received a call from Ezer Mizion. He was a perfect match for a sick young child. “In many ways it felt like winning the lottery,” he said, noting the relative ease with which a life could be saved.

In the past, the procedure was painful and performed under general anesthesia. Today it is little more than a blood transfusion, during which the stem cells are filtered from the donor’s blood.

Lox was taken to the Shneider Hospital in Petah Tikva. At the time he knew nothing about the patient beyond the fact that his donation was going toward a child with leukemia. Today they are in touch. The boy and his Tel Aviv-based family visit now and again. And, he chuckled, “they send me presents to the base all the time.”

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