Thinking of Brandeis University, “community engagement” is probably one of the first phrases that comes to mind. You might even say that Brandeis is partially defined by its thriving and diverse community engagement opportunities. This being the case, there are few better representatives of the school than Shana Criscitiello ’18, who is majoring in Health: Science, Society and Policy. Criscitiello is a campus ambassador to Gift of Life, a marrow registry that matches potential bone marrow and stem cell donors to patients suffering from blood cancer. 

      Criscitiello explained how the Gift of Life began in an interview with the Justice. The organization was started by Jay Feinberg, an Ashkenazic Jew, around 25 years ago, when he discovered that he had blood cancer. 

  After failed chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Feinberg’s last hope for survival was to receive a bone marrow donation. At the time, however, Ashkenazic Jewish representation within bone marrow registries was only 8 percent, making finding a perfect match highly unlikely. Needless to say, he did not find a perfect match within the existing registries and was given one year to live. 

     Feinberg’s mother refused to give up on her son and ran several drives in hopes of finding his perfect match. As the year went by, they found a half-match for Feinberg. Though there is a very high chance a body will react aversively to bone marrow not identical to its own, he decided to go through with the surgery anyway. As Feinberg and his donor were getting ready to go to the hospital, one man decided to have one last bone marrow drive in hopes of finding a match for Feinberg. Criscitiello animatedly described how the last man tested at that very last drive was Feinberg’s perfect match. Feinberg went through with the donation and was completely cured of his illness. He then went on to establish the Gift of Life registry, which continues to find donors to treat patients for their illnesses.

     Thanks to the efforts of those who ran drives to save Jay Feinberg, there is now a much larger Ashkenazic Jewish representation within bone marrow registries. This means that if you are an Ashkenazic Jew with blood cancer, you have a much higher chance of finding a perfect bone marrow match within existing registries.

     Criscitiello first heard about the Gift of Life when she went  to one of their drives and a representative asked to swab the inside of her cheek to put her in their bone marrow registry.

     “They asked me if they could take a little cotton swab, and I was like, ‘Before I give this person my cells and DNA or whatever they’re hauling away, I kind of want to know about this organization,’” she said in an interview with the Justice. 

  Criscitiello read up on the organization and was intrigued by it because it is similar to genetic counseling, a profession she is interested in. Both the Gift of Life and genetic counseling include aspects of helping individuals by looking into their biological compatibility with others, which appealed to her.  She applied to their Campus Ambassadors Program without expecting much to come out of it. After a follow-up email and a long application process, Criscitiello was notified that she had been accepted into the program. She spent this past summer training in Boca Raton, Florida for a symposium.

   “We got lectures from doctors, patients, donors; … then we got trained and had mock drives and they sent us back to our schools,” she explained.

  As a campus ambassador, Criscitiello’s mission is to hold drives to swab people interested in joining the registry and to educate Brandeis students about the importance Gift of Life. Cricitiello also wants Brandeis students to be aware of how minor the donation procedure is and how rewarding it can be. The donation, if one is found to be a perfect match for a blood cancer patient, is fairly simple. 80 percent of the time, donors are asked to donate stem cells, a process similar to giving blood. 20 percent of the time, perfect matches are asked to donate bone marrow, which is a short surgical process similar in severity to getting one’s wisdom teeth taken out. 

  According to Criscitiello, one marrow donor told her that they were able to attend class on the same day as the surgery. Needless to say, neither of the procedures are harmful to the donor, and all procedures are paid for in full by Gift of Life. The only qualification for being in the registry is a genuine interest in donating.

     “They really want committed donors,” Criscitiello commented, “I would personally be so happy to get called and potentially be able to help someone’s sister or mother. … It’s really personal for everyone.”

     Unfortunately, Brandeis does not always make it simple to allow these drives to take place. Criscitiello has found that, ironically, “even though our school stands for social justice, it’s pretty inhibitory to allowing me to have these drives.” According to Criscitiello, campus ambassadors in other schools simply need to send out an email to receive funding, advertising and other assistance for their drives. In contrast, said Criscitiello, “Here, it’s pretty hard to get your foot in the door. … I’ve been told no to pretty much every drive I’ve tried to host.”

  In comparison, Criscitiello has also experienced largely positive feedback from the student body. At a drive she ran at the study abroad fair in collaboration with Hebrew University, many students approached her, already passionate about the cause, to commend her for running the drive. Consequently, Criscitiello said, “their enthusiasm rubbed off on strangers walking by and they were like, ‘Oh what’s this? Let me come hear about it.” The result was an excited and impassioned crowd and a successful drive, Criscitiello’s two goals for Gift of Life on campus.

     Despite the ups and downs she has experienced, Criscitiello has not let any barriers stifle her success at Brandeis. Since the start of the fall semester, she has already run three drives and swabbed 61 people. She hopes to add more students to the registry by the time she graduates and spark a passion within the Brandeis community for the Gift of Life registry, similar to what she feels. 

    “A lot of community service makes you feel warm and fuzzy; makes you feel really good,” Criscitiello commented. “But this just seems huge.”