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Ithaca football athlete makes heroic donation

By Mike Warwick
For NCAA.org

Adam Bienstock started playing football as a freshman at Dwight Englewood High School in New Jersey. He then played as a freshman and sophomore at Ithaca College before deciding to hang up his cleats.

His career was similar to those of the hundreds of thousands who play college football and the millions who play at the high school level: He never played on a championship team and he never got carried off the field in celebration. As an offensive and defensive tackle, he never scored a touchdown (although he did get to carry the ball once during his high school career).

But he did save a life. And it was because of football.

In January, Bienstock completed the process of bone marrow donation. That process started last April when he was one of 350 participants in a “Be the Match” bone marrow registry sponsored by the Ithaca football team. Seven months later, after weeks of being tested, taking shots and preparing for the harvesting process, Bienstock underwent a seven-hour procedure that collected his white blood cells. The end result: a 50-year-old man suffering from cancer was given a chance at life after receiving Adam’s cells.

“You would hope that someone would do something like this for you,” Bienstock said.

Mike Welch, Adam’s coach, summed it up differently: “Adam Bienstock is a hero.”

In 18 years as head coach at his alma mater, Welch has consistently made sure that his players are involved in community service. From football mini-camps for local children and car washes and other fundraisers for the local activities center to regular team-wide visits to a nearby veteran affairs hospital, the Bombers have plenty of opportunities for giving back.

Last spring, Ithaca joined dozens of other college football programs as participants in the National Bone Marrow Donor Program’s “Get in the Game – Save A Life” program.

“Our captains and our seniors took full responsibility for organizing and implementing the program,” Welch said. “This was our first year as participants in the program and our team signed up more than 350 donors. The normal total for first year teams has been 250.”

Ithaca head football coach Mike Welch encourages his players to take part in community service activities.

Donors from those 350 participants who were potential matches were contacted a few months later. Bienstock was one of them.

“I heard from them around the middle of October,” he said. “They shipped a blood test to our health center and the people there administered it to me. A couple weeks later I heard from them again – I was the best match they had out of all the donors at our drive.”

What followed was a battery of general health tests, blood work and general monitoring – all building to the extraction procedure. Over the college’s winter break, Bienstock traveled from his Englewood, N.J., home to the New York Blood Center for the first shot in the final preparation. That shot stimulated Adam’s immune system to produce more marrow stem cells to help increase the yield of that the ensuing harvest

“They gave me the first shot then had me wait a few hours to see if there were any reactions,” said Bienstock, who added that the only side effect was some lower back pain.

A nurse came to Bienstock’s house to administer another shot on each of the next five days. The next day he traveled to Columbia Presbyterian for the final procedure. Seated in a comfortable chair, Bienstock spent more than four hours sitting as still as he could while the harvesting procedure took place. His blood was drawn out a needle in one arm, sent through a machine that extracted the marrow stem cells, then returned to his body through his other arm.

While the process was going on, Bienstock’s only problem was discomfort (“I couldn’t scratch when I got an itch,” he said). Once the harvesting process was complete, he was kept for observation. He found that for a little while he couldn’t move his arms after keeping them so still for such a long time. “Otherwise I didn’t really feel any different,” he said.

Michael Garbin, Upstate New York recruiter for “Be the Match,” explained why Bienstock’s contributions – and those from thousands of other donors – are so important.

“Patients who need a bone marrow cell transplant have exhausted every other medical option,” he said. “This transplant is their last chance. For that 50-year-old recipient, Adam has literally given him the gift of life.”

A couple of weeks after Bienstock returned to school for the spring semester, he attended the football team’s postseason banquet. After awards like Outstanding Lineman, Most Improved Back and the Bomber Attitude Award were given out, Welch showed a short video promoting the American Football Coaches Association’s involvement in “Be the Match.”

Then he called Bienstock to the podium. Welch told the story of Adam’s donation and when he presented his former player with a plaque, the crowd of nearly 400 responded with a standing ovation and the longest applause of the night.

“I would have wanted to participate in the bone marrow drive anyway,” said Bienstock. “But I was definitely more motivated with it being a team activity.”

The Bombers’ participation in community service is a team-building effort, Bienstock said. “When people are put in a different environment, you see their true colors,” he said.

Those true colors were on display during Ithaca’s bone marrow drive.

“The event coordinator from ‘Be the Match’ made a special point of telling me that our players were the best group of young men that he has worked with,” Welch said.

Especially one member.

“Adam donated his bone marrow and now a 50-year-old man is on his way to recovery from cancer,” Welch said. “Adam saved his life. Adam is a hero.”

Mike Warwick is the sports information director at Ithaca College.