I Won a Grammy

And I bet you didn’t even know I could sing or produce records or anything. Well, I can’t and I don’t, but anyway my Grammy was way better, if only slightly taller, than the award they give out.
I found out about my Grammy, Phyllis Hersch, the way I’ve heard people find out about winning the Nobel Prize, from a phone call at an odd hour that originally went to an old number then got forwarded. I was told that I was nominated as a potential bone marrow match for a patient with some kind of leukemia, and would I mind getting tested to see if I was a true match. I barely remembered signing up for the National Marrow Donor Program (Be The Match) several years earlier while in grad school, at a random student registration drive on campus.
Probably about 10 days after that initial inquiry, I was told I was a winner perfect match! Then followed a few weeks of vetting, getting my bona fides checked out, and being asked about a thousand times if I was SURE I was willing to go forward and donate and did I remember that I could back out at any time. At this point all I knew about the patient was that she was a she who was 63 years old. That made her about the same age as my own parents, which made it logical that she had grown kids, probably grandkids (I was late starting a family, that didn’t mean everyone else was), and therefore it was clear I would do this. If I had even a chance to give someone a little extra time with her family, who was I to deny it? Based on the high accuracy of the match, it was also likely that she was Jewish, which made it that much more of a mitzvah.
I did a little acupuncture to prepare my body, had the surgery, and eagerly awaited the tiniest bit of news that trickled in over the next several months. First the transplant grafted, which was good. Then nothing for a while, then a general “she’s doing OK” message. Finally, as the mandated year for keeping the identification of donor and recipient confidential from each other neared its end, I called the NMDP and authorized them to release my information to the recipient and her family.
As I remember it, it was the day after the year was up that I got the phone call from the Grammy herself. We talked for quite a while that first time, exchanging information about our respective families, finding out wonderful shared joys like her birthday being the same day as my wedding anniversary, and trying to figure out how we were now related. I implored Phyllis not to take up a life of crime, since we now shared the same DNA and I wasn’t ready to take the fall for her (did I say I’m not a singer? I’m also not a genetic scientist).
Less than a year after that first phone call, I became a father for the first time, and less than a year after that Grammy and Papa came to visit and celebrate life and love with us in San Diego. In the subsequent decade, we saw each other a few more times (one or two planned occasions and one surprise visit), spoke numerous times, and shared loads of family simchas (mostly by mail, Internet, phone, etc.). Births on our end, bar and bat mitzvahs on theirs, and grown-up birthdays all around. I reminded my kids over and over how lucky they were to have an extra set of grandparents, and Grammy and Papa never failed to pick the perfect birthday and Chanukah presents even for kids they’d never met.
Grammy Phyllis is gone now, but it is all that time over the last 11 years that I’ll continue to draw strength from. All that love, all that life.

May 2007, Children's Pool
May 2007, Children’s Pool

Santee, CA 2007
Santee, CA 2007

Shot on Coronado
Shot on Coronado

At Heaven Sent Desserts, North Park, San Diego
At Heaven Sent Desserts, North Park, San Diego



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13 responses to “I Won a Grammy”

  1. Lydia Jacobs Avatar
    Lydia Jacobs

    This was such a blessing for you both. I know how much she loved you and your family and spoke of you often. Thank you for being her lifeline. You not only gave Phyllis life, but our entire family and all her friends got that blessing as well.

  2. Tikvah Led Avatar
    Tikvah Led

    What a beautiful story!!!

  3. Joel Hersch Avatar
    Joel Hersch

    Phyllis and I enjoyed eleven additional years of life and living as a result of Yiftach Levy’s precious donation of bone marrow, stem cells, and donor lymphocytes. The thing is, Phyllis had three relapses from during her eleven years of survival. At one point the Doctors at M.D. Anderson Center in Houston wanted another donor who eventually backed away. Yiftach sent word “I will be there if you need me” he said.

    How do you thank this selfless gift? Yiftach’s wife, Jennifer is just as much a person to thank as she supported the donation and this interruption of family life.

    An inscription on the back of a wristwatch we presented to Yiftach from Jewish liturgy is appropriate. “Save on Life and you save a World”. And so he did.

  4. Rik McNeill Avatar
    Rik McNeill

    Joel, Yiftach, and families-

    What a beautiful gift you gave and how it enriched your life, Yiftach. Thank you for sharing it with the world of those who love Phyllis and the Hersch family. I regret her death, but I celebrate the joy that you gave her and her family. I was deeply moved by the love of your gift and the gift of your story.

    Joel, to you and your family, I send my deepest sympathies. You have many joys and blessings to cherish. I wish you the very best, every day. You carry a burden and a joy, hopefully, the sorrows will be short and the smiles enduring forever.

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