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Cancer Turned My Life Upside Down

Cancer Turned My Life Upside Down

A Rabbinical Student’s Struggle with Leukemia

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At my Chabad.org workstation.
At my Chabad.org workstation.

We dream. We plan, work and have hopes and expectations for ourselves and our loved ones. Life begins to take shape and seems to flow along, even predictably at times.

And then things can change.

Much of my childhood was shaped by plans and strategies. My family had dreams for me, as I had for myself. Coming from an Orthodox, rabbinical home, I was on track to follow a line of rabbis and train for my own semichah (rabbinical ordination) and use my talents in computers to spread Judaism.

In July 2005, I had just finished my second year of rabbinical school and embarked on a summer of Merkos ShlichusChabad's Less than three hours after returning to the United States, I learned how much my life – if I lived – was about to change. Rabbinical Student Visitation Program – and traveled from my home in Orange County, California, to the very different environment of Lithuania. I was committed to helping the local Jewish community by working in a children's summer camp, teaching some Judaism, and assisting in a soup kitchen.

Just prior to my flight, I began fighting a bout of flu or some other type of infection. Nothing that some antibiotics couldn't take care of—or so I initially thought. Upon my arrival in Eastern Europe I progressively began to feel weaker and was not responding to typical treatments.

I eventually took some simple medical tests. The doctor's face was serious when he told me that something was very wrong and that I needed to go home immediately. From that point, things unraveled very quickly.

An ambulance took me to the airport and the flight back was just one of many nightmares I was to experience in the days and months to come. My parents picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the hospital. Less than three hours after returning to the United States, I learned how much my life – if I lived – was about to change.

The doctors informed us that I was suffering from AML, Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a very aggressive and fast growing cancer of the blood. I was immediately started on a chemotherapy regimen and a search was started for a bone marrow donor. I soon fell into a week-long coma and was sustained on life support. Through the grace of G‑d, skilled doctors and some medical miracles, I somehow pulled through.

Uplifting Memories

My last memory before I crashed into the coma was of telephoning my dearest friend, Shloime Weiss.

"Shloime, are you sitting?

"Yes."

"Shloime, I was just diagnosed with leukemia. I am unsure of what is going to happen now. I want you to go to the Ohel (the Lubavitcher Rebbe's resting place) and pray for me."

Shloime dropped everything and went immediately, together with a group of friends, to pray. That was the first of many such kindnesses I was to experience during the long and painful months that were to follow. (Postscript: I recently flew to Israel and joyfully danced at my dear friend Shloime's wedding.)

There was no shortage of pain, fear, and confusion over the next weeks. I followed blood counts like many folks follow baseball box scores, hoping for a winning day.

Chanukah found me still in the hospital. I needed to have that light, that symbol of overcoming great odds, the symbol of hope and miracles. Of course, the Fire Marshal does not allow fire in patient rooms, for obvious safety reasons. But human angels were working behind the scenes, likely led by my parents. On the first night of Chanukah, in December 2005, I lit the first candle of the Menorah in my hospital room with four generations of my family present to celebrate with me. All with the local Fire Marshal looking on.

During this period, a relationship developed between my father, Rabbi David Eliezrie, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Yorba Linda, In the best of Chabad tradition, the good doctor was asked to don tefillin. He did so, for the first time since the morning of his bar mitzvah. and Dr. Eugene Spiritus, chief medical officer of the University of California at Irvine Medical Center. This relationship led to a regular Torah class at the hospital for faculty, students and physicians—a class that continues to this day. A new Torah scroll was inaugurated in my room with a scribe present to pen the first words. (This Torah scroll was completed a few months later at my parents' Chabad House.) There was a prayer service with a Torah reading. I had an aliyah, as did Dr. Spiritus. In the best of Chabad tradition, the good doctor was asked to don tefillin. He did so, for the first time since the morning of his bar mitzvah. One of the rabbis remarked to him, "You understand, it's G‑d working through your hands."

Short-Lived Respite

The entire process took nine grueling months. My final chemo treatment was in March 2006. A month later, just before Passover, my doctor announced that I was in remission.

My life gradually got back on track, though it was not without setbacks. I slowly returned to health and actually starting thinking about a future beyond the next treatment, evaluation or round of medication.

One Friday in August I went to my doctor for a routine follow-up. After reviewing the labs, he told me that there were some possible concerns and that I should return the following Monday for another blood test. If those results remained unfavorable, a bone marrow biopsy would be necessary.

I went in Monday and completed the blood work. They then put me to sleep for the biopsy.

When I woke up, my mother was lying on the floor—having fainted from shock. I knew it was back.

Later that day, my doctor came in and confirmed my worst fears. "Yosef, he said, "I'm sorry. It's back." My life was turned upside down all over again, and at that point I knew that the only way for me to stay alive was to find a perfect match and have a bone marrow transplant.

My Angel

The next morning I was admitted to CHOC (Children's Hospital of Orange County). My doctor came in and told me the news for which I had been waiting for more than a year—I had a bone marrow match.

I took in a breath of fresh air. I now knew I was going to be okay. I knew it would be a very difficult process, but I knew that my life was saved thanks to an unknown angel who happened to be a perfect match.

I was admitted for the transplant on October 9th, 2006. I received ten days of induction chemo—the worst chemo out there, it is meant to kill your marrow for good. I spent the holiday of Simchat Torah in the hospital.

Let me tell you about that holiday. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the completing of the annual cycle of Torah readings. I have this vivid memory of two rabbinical students dancing around my bed on Simchat Torah eve, with joy I cannot describe. That Simchat Torah I lay in the hospital, very much out of it—having begun my pre-BMT treatment. Two close friends spent that Simchat Torah with me, and even brought along an old Torah Scroll. The nurses and staff treated the Torah with amazing respect, and set aside a special room to house it. That night, it was time for Hakafot. My friends brought in the Torah and sang and danced around my bed. I cannot say that I was completely with it, but I have this vivid memory of two rabbinical students dancing around my bed on Simchat Torah eve, with joy I cannot describe.

I received the cells on October 19th, three liters of bone marrow from some angel from somewhere in the world. On that day, I stared at the yellow tag dangling from the plastic bag that was feeding bone marrow cells into my ravaged body. Nurses came in and sang Happy Birthday, to symbolize what we all hoped would mark a new start for a young leukemia patient. My family prayed and recited Psalms. Sitting there, still in a fog from the chemotherapy, I wondered which stranger has donated this precious gift. I asked to see the tag. It read: Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel. "That must be where the donor is from," I told my father. I tucked the tag underneath my pillow and fell asleep.

Meeting Moshe

After fifty-five days in isolation, and many long and hard months of infection and recovery, I am now doing a lot better, thank G‑d, and slowly getting back to normal.

Eighteen months after my transplant I returned to CHOC. I also brought along the tag – my clue as to the identity of my donor – and a new friend: Moshe Price. The twenty-two year old man who saved my life.

Finishing the last letters of the Torah scroll that was started in my hospital room. (Photo: Clifford Lester)
Finishing the last letters of the Torah scroll that was started in my hospital room. (Photo: Clifford Lester)

Moshe did not know me. Moshe did not know my whole story. All he knew was that he was the only person in the world who could save someone's life. And without blinking an eye, he agreed to undergo the painful surgery required to donate marrow.

We first met in April 2007. It was one of the most amazing days of my life. He is a truly extraordinary person.

In Moshe I found a lifelong friend, a real person to replace the tag—which I still hold on to. It was a bit of hope for me throughout; it played an important part of my life during that transplant. It represented my hope that one day I would meet the person who was so kind to me.

Moving On

Moshe got married almost a year ago. He and his wife Tova live in Jerusalem, where he is a full-time Torah student, while Tova works in Special Ed.

And my personal dream to move on recently started to become true.

I recently received my rabbinical ordination and an internship from Chabad.org, I have seen horror, pain, suffering—and countless acts of kindness. the largest Jewish content provider on the web. I plan to expand my knowledge in web design, marketing, project management, and programming. I look forward to getting married and starting a Jewish family, and using technology to disseminate Judaism. I have many ideas and dreams; my whole life is in front of me.

Meeting my Angel: Moshe and I meet for the first time!
Meeting my Angel: Moshe and I meet for the first time!

Cancer turned my life upside down. When I was diagnosed, and again when I relapsed, I thought my life was over. I have seen horror, pain, suffering—and countless acts of kindness. All through this process my community, family and friends have been behind me. I implement new things I learned from my experience every day.

My challenges have been difficult, but they have made me stronger. Every time that I have a challenge in life, I think of heroes like Moshe Price, who gave from himself to save a stranger's life. People like him give me a reason to live another day and overcome life's obstacles.

So I call on you, all of you going through hard times. Beckon your inner strength, and take strength from your family and friends. Overcome life's challenges. Dream, dream big, and make those dreams come true.


I very much want to encourage you all to sign up to be a bone marrow donor. It saved my life, and it has saved the lives of tens of thousands of others around the world. Here are two organizations that facilitate this process in the US:

Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, and, the one that facilitated my match, Be The Match Registry.

See also this story as it originally appeared in our news section: "Blood Brothers" Brought Together by Marrow Donation.

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Tova November 28, 2015

What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing. It is wonderful to know that heros like Moshe are out there who are willing to give so much, to give someone a chance to live. Reply

Anonymous Mountaindale, NY December 11, 2013

Surviving Cancer I loved the article. It was sensitively written. B'ezrat H-M, you are continuing with your life. I thought of copying the article to give to 2 mothers, one of whom lost her son after a ten-year struggle with Hodgkin's, and the second one whose son has been struggling to live with a severe heart defect, confronting one struggle after another, currently on dialysis. The outcome is still uncertain and his quality of life is dramatically limited, but he and his wife persevere, with the extended family's support - Tehillim, frequent visits, etc.
The first young man with Hodgkin's fought it off, raising ten children, never letting on that he was in pain or discomfort. He had always led a Torah -true life, going out of his way to assist countless people. And always a bright smile.
The second young man, with congenital heart defects, has studied Torah, practiced mitzvot, even has a job, working from home with his computer. He perseveres, as did the one whose soul is now in Olam Haba. Reply

Anonymous January 29, 2013

you have been in my prayers Yosef. Baruch Hashem! You don't know what joy I had from reading that you are well. I was a medical student when I met your mother in the halls of UCI hospital and I met you briefly in your hospital room. I attended the Torah classes that your father put together at the hospital. I remember the strong emunah and positivity your mother had. Throughout the years your hebrew name was on my list and I wasn't sure what happened. I am so grateful to hear this news.Your miracle brings hope to my own situation with my children with health issues. Bezrat Hashem you should continue to have good news. Reply

Baruch St. Louis, MO/USA August 10, 2010

Thanks Thank you for telling your story, for going through the things that you went through and sharing them. This kind of encouragement is a great kindness. I have to get the results of my bone marrow biopsy tomorrow. Reply

Anonymous BonneyLake, United States June 12, 2009

Thank You Yosef I forgot to say Thank You I do need the website of the bone maro donar program its time to step up. Reply

Boruch Jacobson new york, ny/usa June 12, 2009

Very Moving I pray for the day when you can write the story about your wedding day and your own beautiful home filled with nachas and warmth. Reply

Luke Chapel Hill, NC May 21, 2009

Thank you Thank you for posting your story. I used to work at UNC’s (University of North Carolina) Bone Marrow & Stem Cell Transplantation Program Reply

Aharon Goldstein Berlin, Germany May 17, 2009

To Yosef Dear Yosef,
Thank you for sharing your moving and beautiful story with many of us.
Wishing you a full and speedy recovery from the very bottom of my heart. Reply

Anonymous via jewishutah.com May 15, 2009

Amazing and beautiful story. Thank you. I wish you well. Reply

Yitzchok Houston, TX via chabadtmc.org May 15, 2009

Very moving Thank you for sharing your story with all of us. May Hashem bless you with continued good health for a very, very long time to come. Reply

Richard Raff BonneyLake, WA May 15, 2009

Teachings Don't accept any ideas other than what the Torahs teachings and understanding. I have never been in your position but what you did for you and your family is one of the greatest things of all. Please never give up up your G-d given right to show why numbers are numbers and why Jews are strong. Live long and may your story do the same thing. Reply

Anonymous May 14, 2009

Wow! That is a very moving story. It just goes to show that with faith and trust in G-d , you can get anywhere. I wish you success and good health for the rest of your life. This goes for the kind donor too. Reply

Leah Bonner Irvine May 14, 2009

I second the motion for you to write a book. .... so happy for you ..... may you be greatly successful in "using technology to disseminate Judaism." and may your dreams continue to come true. Reply

Shterna G. Bklyn, N.Y. May 14, 2009

Wow! I bet those "Hakofos" in your hospital room that Simchas Torah were Almighty G-d's favorite by far! You and your loved ones took a disaster and turned it into a "monument" that keeps growing reaching the very heavens! I wish you revealed goodness in abundance. Reply

Katherine Lipkin Copley, OH May 14, 2009

You should expand this article into a book You are an amazing person, full of faith. Please, contact Artscroll to see whether you could expand this article into a book. You are a talented writer, and I think if you wrote a book you could reach even more people. Certainly, this story could be much, much longer, without losing the readers. Reply

Tamir Goodman Zichron Yakkov, Israel May 13, 2009

Thank you Thank you for the story. May you and all of the nation of Israel be blessed with only Simcha and good news! Reply

Leah Shapiro May 13, 2009

becoming a donor Yosef,

What an uplifting and very touching story. I am so sorry you had to go through so much. I checked out both websites about becoming a donor and was wondering if you have to join both or if you can do one and you are on all the lists for people that need BMT?

Thanks. Reply

S. Zacks pac-pal, ca May 11, 2009

I just became a donor In your merit, Yosef.

I just became a bone marrow donor by following the link provided by you at the bottom of the article. Reply

Inge Reisinger May 11, 2009

Thank you for sharing your life with us and for your words to become a bone marrow donor. I feel all your ups and downs and you must know this is the strongest test G-d gives us - now I wish you an own family to give all the love you have got to the yours. All the best for your future.
I am as well registered in Germany in a bone marrow association as well in a Plasma org. which is nessesarry for medicaments.
(Now you read my miserable english and that makes you laughing - the best medicine I can send you) Reply

Anonymous May 11, 2009

wow, you are an inspiration what a moving story yosef. You are a real trooper we can all learn from you. Reply