LIVINGSTON, NJ — Inspired by a 23-year-old Livingston native who risked his own health to save the life of a 70-year-old man battling acute myeloid leukemia at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Livingston’s Warter family has decided to fund the first 100 graduates from the Class of 2020 who join the Gift of Life Marrow Registry through the family's donor circle.
On April 9, approximately six years after Livingston resident Robbie April was swabbed for the Gift of Life registry, he was notified that he was a match for someone in need; and although he could have declined, April bravely opted to donate his potentially live-saving stem cells.
After learning that this particular match came from a 2014 marrow drive held in hopes of finding a match for her husband, fellow Livingston resident Barbara Cash Warter, a graduate of the Livingston High School (LHS) Class of 1989, decided to "pay it forward" by offering new LHS graduates “an opportunity to swab and join the registry as a gift celebrating their graduation.”
“The fact that Robbie was from Livingston is powerful,” she said. “Equally, and more important to me, is the idea that Robbie joined after his 18th birthday. For the registry, the optimal ages are 18 to 35, so if someone joins at 18, they have many, many years to potentially be able to help someone instead of someone older.
“Younger people tend to be chosen as stronger matches as well. We are very passionate about getting the younger generation involved, so high school and college kids are big targets.”
Through the Warter Strong Foundation, which was founded in memory of Barbara’s late husband, Dr. Oren Warter, swab kits will be delivered directly to the homes of all interested graduates. Barbara noted the foundation will “happily send it in, paid and processed, in celebration of [their] graduation” and that this offer applies to recent graduates from other schools as well.
Barbara explained that the process of joining the registry involves a simple cheek swab, which takes about four minutes and is not painful. This can also be safely done during the pandemic, as the donor swabs his or her own cheek with a large Q-tip and puts it in a sealed envelope. Additionally, Barbara added that the person delivering the kit will stand at a distance if the donor is able to complete and return the swab on the spot.
If the donor is a match, Barbara said the process to donate "is similar to donating blood," as stem cell collection is done using an apheresis machine. According to Gift of Life, it takes about four-to-six hours to separate the needed stem cells from the blood, the rest of which is returned to the donor.
“Some people confuse this with an organ,” said Barbara. "It is non-invasive, and you are not giving up anything. You make new blood and platelets every day.”
April shared his own experience with the process, noting that he was working remotely under the State of New Jersey’s stay-at-home orders when he received an unexpected phone call from Boca Raton, Fla. advising him of the match.
Although he was skeptical about being hospitalized during the pandemic, April said he trusted the systems in place Hackensack Medical Center and immediately agreed to donate. He added that his “parents and sister were incredibly excited” and that his entire family supported his decision.
“Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean that other health needs have stopped; they haven’t,” said April, who works for a major financial and advisory services firm in New York City. “People fighting cancer still need help. No matter how you look at it—morally, logically, ethically—it’s the best thing you can do.”
He added that the procedure was simple and that he was suited up in protective gear for the entire length of his stay.
“I watched one movie, then read some articles on my phone and took a nap,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was done…I’m proud to say this is something I’ve done and helped someone who needed it.”
According to the Gift of Life, recipients must remain anonymous for the first year due to federal regulations, but then have the opportunity to meet their donor in person if both parties are interested. Although the recovery period from a stem cell transplant can take time, April said he hopes to hear good news about his recipient.
He also expressed hope that more of his friends will join the registry after hearing about his experience.
“I want to stress first how easy it is to donate, and secondly that, for such a minor activity and a few hours of your time, you can save someone’s life,” he said. “It’s important to do.”
Barbara’s son, Zach Warter, plans to help build awareness at LHS in the fall about the need for young people to join the registry by connecting with the Gift of Life as an ambassador for its high school program. As a rising junior, Zach hopes that April’s story will help him inspire LHS students to follow in his footsteps—especially since the minimum age to join was recently lowered to 17 in New Jersey.
"Now more than ever, we need to find some good in the world and look for ways to ‘Do Happy,’” said Zach, quoting his family’s mantra. “What better way than taking five minutes, swabbing your cheek and potentially saving a life? What better gift to get than that?"
Zach’s father was battling leukemia when his family first became involved with the Gift of Life. Although Oren received a transplant in early 2015, he died later that year from an unrelated condition.
Founded in Oren’s memory as well as the memory of Barbara’s oldest son, who died in 2018, the Warter Strong Donor Circle at Gift of Life has raised more than $55,000 and added 1,067 donors to the registry—resulting in four lifesaving transplants, including April’s recent stem cell donation.
“We understood years ago that when we held that first drive, the over 600 people we added to the registry would remain in the ‘system’ for many years and that each time there was a match or a transplant, we were carrying Oren's legacy on and helping to save lives in his honor,” said Barbara. “Paying the kindness of strangers forward. Living as a community.”
Barbara’s new husband, Jeff Sarrett, and his family have also become extremely involved in the Warter family’s mission to “Do Happy.”
“In face of life's complications and harder times, we believe that happiness is something you can control by simply doing something, and the connection to Gift of Life is one of the ways that we see that mission being shared,” she said.
The Warter Strong Foundation is committing $6,000 to cover the cost of the first 100 recent graduates to order a swab kit. The cost to join the registry is typically about $60 per donor.
To get started, visit the Warter Strong donor page at Gift of Life BY CLICKING HERE.