A Mountain To Climb

A Mountain To Climb

She packed her skis, as usual. She packed her poles, as usual. She packed her bindings, as usual.
Dr. Ruth Spector, an avid skier, was hitting the slopes last week.
She also packed her helmet, not as usual.
You don’t risk injury when you have leukemia.
“I never wear a helmet,” says Spector, a 41-year-old anesthesiologist who lives in Lake Success, L.I.
She was diagnosed in October with acute myeloid leukemia, an advanced form of the cancer of the bore marrow’s tissue that produces white blood cells. After rounds of chemotherapy and other exhausting treatments, infections and anemia, she’s in remission now, healthy enough to resume limited jogging and — with sensible precautions — skiing.
“It’s a very good sign. I feel pretty good, actually. I’m very strong,” Spector says, sitting in her living room a few days before her skiing trip. She’s been on leave from her job at Long Island Jewish Hospital in New Hyde Park since being diagnosed with leukemia.
Her hair, once fiery red and curly — an early casualty of chemo — has started growing back in dark, straight tufts. She spends her days caring for her three children (ages 2, 6 and 7), reading and reviewing medical cases. And waiting for a bone marrow transplant.
Without a transplant from a matching donor, her type of leukemia is likely to return. The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, an educational and advocacy group that registers possible matches in the Jewish community, has conducted an ongoing series of blood drives on Spector’s behalf in the last few months.
So far a donor with the proper matches of antigen and sub-antigen proteins has not turned up.
“I know right now there’s no one,” Spector says. “I don’t even think about it” — worrying won’t help.
None of her relatives, statistically most likely to have matching marrow, are a good match.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Jay Feinberg, a leukemia survivor from West Orange, N.J., who has managed the Gift of Life marrow registry full time since undergoing a successful transplant a decade ago. “There are multiple combinations” of antigens. “A lot of Jewish patients have the same problem.”
A proper match is most likely within one’s ethnic group — in Spector’s case, Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe. Decimated during World War II, that group’s reduced numbers lower the odds of finding a match.
“There are fewer people to test in an extended family,” Feinberg says.
He says the blood tests for Spector, aided in the United States by local Hadassah chapters and in Israel by the Hadassah Medical Organization — she is a Hadassah member — have added some 15,000 names to the rolls of possible marrow donors.
“We know that many people have been saved because of what we’re doing” for Spector, says Miki Schulman, an old friend and Hadassah’s national convention chair. It was Schulman who brought Dr. Spector’s plight to the attention of the women’s Zionist organization.
Hadassah’s Pikuah Nefesh-To Save A Life program, which focuses on medical issues, has encouraged members to be tested and volunteer at Gift of Life’s local drives as part of its current 90th anniversary celebration.
“Our local chapters always get involved when there is someone in the community looking for a match,” Schulman says. “We hope that one of those lives [saved by the bone marrow drives] will be Ruthie’s.”
“Ruthie’s a pretty strong person,” Feinberg says.
Schulman says Spector is dealing with leukemia “with extreme insight, but she understands the seriousness of the disease. She’s living every day to the fullest.”
“You don’t take things for granted,” Spector says. “You wake up every day and you’re thankful for that day.”
When her strength and time allow, she and her husband, Dr. Les Salwen, a gastroenterologist who works in Brooklyn, promote the blood drives. With the help of Feinberg, they have designed a Web site (www.helpruthienow.com) that has photographs of Spector and her family.
Spector, a native of Maryland and former resident of Manhattan, says her Lake Success neighbors of all religions have helped out during her illness.
“A phenomenal outpouring of support,” she says. “People have schlepped my kids all over for me. People I hardly knew called.”
“The people here have delivered food, visited, made donations, have been tested, helped in disseminating the word about her plight,” Salwen says.
Spector’s mother, an Auschwitz survivor, lends moral support. “When I was not doing very well in the hospital, she discussed inspirational stories from when she was in the concentration camps.”
For the next few months, or until a bone marrow match is found, there are more trips to the hospital for chemo. And her children’s questions. “They have a lot of questions.
“They want to know if I’m going to die,” Dr. Spector says. “I may — but I’m trying not to,” she answers.
“They want to know if they can catch it from me,” she says. They cannot.
“They know I have leukemia. We use that word.”
Last week’s skiing trip in Vermont with the two older kids was part of the parents’ attempt to keep family life as normal as possible.
“I know it’s horrifying everyone,” says Spector, who with a weakened immune system cannot afford an injury.
It would be her first time back on the slopes since October. “It’s more for them” — for the children — “than for me,” she says.
No risks — Spector says she will stick to the intermediate trails.
And one more precaution. “We’re all wearing helmets this time.”

For information about upcoming bone marrow blood tests, contact the Gift of Life at (800) 9MARROW; e-mail, www.hlamatch.org, www.giftoflife.org or www.bone-marrow.org.

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