Standing next to each other, Kayla Saikaly and Adi Versano looked like sisters. Their families marveled at the similarities — both with dark hair and wearing peach-colored dresses. But not only are they unrelated, they live half a world apart.
"They are sisters, genetically," said Saikaly's mother, Samar.
Saikaly, 17, and Versano, 27, met for the first time Friday at City of Hope hospital in Duarte. Saikaly, who lives in Cerritos, suffers from aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow doesn't produce enough blood cells and cripples the immune system. Two years ago, her doctors told her that she needed a bone marrow transplant.
When neither her parents nor her brother were a match, a search in the international bone marrow registry found a donor in Israel — Versano. The transplant was successful, and Saikaly is healthy and back in school.
Recipients in the United States aren't allowed to learn their donor's identity or communicate with them for a year. And even when they can talk to them, they often are separated by distance and don't meet. A tearful Saikaly said she was thrilled that Versano had come from Israel to meet her.
"I think it's important because you can at least say thank you, because it's the least you can do because there's no way you'll ever be able to repay them for what they did for you," Saikaly said.
Versano said that being a donor is "the most important thing you can do." Versano is an assistant kindergarten teacher who is studying to be a special education teacher. The hospital paid for her to come to California.
City of Hope has been hosting yearly reunions for bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplant recipients, donors and their families. About 4,000 people attended Friday's event, which featured music, face painting, a comedy show, a moon bounce, a popcorn stand and cartoonists drawing people's portraits.
The hundreds of transplant recipients who attended wore large buttons that displayed the time that has elapsed since their successful transplants. Volunteers cheered as they registered the patients and wrote the numbers on the buttons: "20 years! 100 days! 6 months!" People at the event noted the times on others' buttons, looking for people who have survived longer than themselves or their loved ones.
Some transplant recipients attended the event with their donors; others came with their family and have never met their "genetic twin."
Laura Sowers, 63, had leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant 10 years ago. She was there Friday with her husband, her bone marrow donor and his wife. Although Sowers and her husband, Craig, live in Albuquerque and her donor lives in New York, the couples have become friends and manage to see each other at least once a year.
"In the quest for a cure, the world is actually very small," said Dr. Stephen Forman, who held the first reunion at the hospital 38 years ago. Over the years, the hospital has performed 12,000 bone marrow and stem cell transplants.
Saikaly's mother, Samar, said that her daughter and Versano planned to spend the weekend together, including a trip to Disneyland on Saturday.
"She saved my daughter's life, so we can never be thankful enough," her mother said. "And that is my Mother's Day gift."