“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” a doctor from Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem asked 26-year-old Adi Versano almost two years ago.
“Two sisters and one brother,” she said.
Then the doctor told her she had another “sister,” this one in the United States, and that she desperately needed Adi’s help.
This “sister” was not a relative in a traditional sense, but their genes lined up to make Versano the perfect bone marrow match for then-15-year-old Kayla Saikaly, who needed a bone marrow transplant to cure her of aplastic anemia, a condition that causes the body not to produce enough blood cells and cripples the immune system.
There was no doubt in Versano’s mind that she would help. She says she cannot remember exactly when she, during a routine blood donation, signed up for a bone marrow registry. She was 19 then, and serving in the army in Jerusalem. Signing up was simply the right thing to do.
She signed up, and then didn’t think often about the registry or her potential to be a donor.
She began studies to become a special education teacher, choosing to specialize in working with children who have special needs because she feels she can truly make a difference in their lives. These students become like family, she says. She also started working as an assistant kindergarten teacher.
Then, in the year before what she describes as “the call that changed my life,” cancer hit close to home.
Three of her dearest friends lost loved ones to cancer, leaving holes in their lives that could never be filled. So when she got the call telling that a teenager in the United States needed her bone marrow, the choice – and the impact of that choice – was clear.
“In order to prevent this pain in others, I decided to do this,” said Versano. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a privilege that only a few get to have. It’s like finding a new sister after you didn’t know you had one.”
'For me, it's almost nothing. But for the patient, it's life'
She was 26 years old when she donated bone marrow for Kayla, just a little younger than Adi herself had been when she registered to become a donor. Versano drove an hour from her home in Yavne, Israel, to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center for the donation. Her family worried a little about the surgical procedure and the general anesthesia, but they were nonetheless supportive.
Versano stresses over and over that for her, the decision and procedure was very, very simple.
“It’s just blood,” she said. “It’s not an organ, just blood. For me, it’s almost nothing. But for the patient, it’s life. It’s everything to her.”
She said she had some soreness for about a week, but says it’s pain she’d gladly endure again. She wondered often about her American “sister,” and how she was doing. Then, about a month later, she received a call informing her that the recipient received her transplant, it engrafted and was not rejected.
“It’s a little pain, but you save a life,” she said.”
Later, she received a touching card from the girl she saved, thanking her for her lifesaving donation. In the months that followed, Versano, then a busy college student studying to become a teacher, often wondered about the girl who’d received her bone marrow, how she was doing, how her family was doing.
Says bone marrow recipient: 'That's what superheroes do, right?'
When she arrived in Southern California earlier this week, she was greeted in her hotel room with flowers from her recipient's family. On Friday, she finally had a chance to hug the sister she didn't know she had, Kayla. She also embraced Kayla's mother, Samar, who had also been eagerly anticipating meeting Versano, who played such an instrumental role in saving her daughter's life.
While Versano doesn't consider herself a hero, Kayla disagrees.
"She's totally a hero," Kayla said. "She saved my life. That's what superheroes do, right?"
Versano considers it an honor to have had the chance to help save someone’s life. She understands the importance of time with her loved ones – and of her own health. Good health is not to be taken for granted.
She says she wouldn’t hesitate to donate bone marrow again – and encourages others to register to be donors.
“It’s the most important thing a human can do.”
Read Kayla's story: