It began with some shortness of breath and heart palpitations during a trip to San Francisco. Brandy Perkins, 28 at the time, attributed the symptoms to altitude, a reaction to her 6,000-foot descent from her home in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to the sea-level city by the bay.
Doctors uncovered a different reason, and in December 2004 Perkins was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the blood and bone marrow. A transplant was vital if Perkins was to survive.
Like two-thirds of all transplant candidates, Perkins lacked a relative suitable to serve as a donor. That left her waiting, along with about 6,000 other patients, for an unrelated donor match to surface through the National Marrow Donor Program. Eight candidates were tested and rejected. In April 2005, a match was found.
Next came six days of chemotherapy treatment to destroy her malignant stem cells. Then it was transplant time, an experience that was far different than Perkins expected.
"I was envisioning a huge operation, but it was not like that at all," Perkins recalled. "I watched TV and ate applesauce while it was happening."
Through it all, one piece of information was kept secret. According to protocol, Perkins was not given the name or hometown of her donor: "All I knew was that she was female and 21."
Perkins, moved by the knowledge that a stranger had voluntarily shared the cells that saved her life, wanted to know more. The rules, however, require a yearlong wait before any communication between donor and recipient.
At the year mark, after battling intestinal problems resulting from graft-versus-host disease, Perkins asked her UC Davis transplant coordinator to pass on her request to make contact. A long wait ensued, but finally a name, e-mail address and phone number arrived. Her donor was a college student in Long Beach, Calif., named Ashley Wysocki.
Too nervous to pick up the phone, Perkins sent an e-mail, introducing herself and asking Wysocki if she'd be interested in a dialogue. The response – an enthusiastic "yes" – came quickly, and the two women found they had "an amazing connection from day one,"
Perkins says. Their first face-to-face meeting came later that year. Perkins and her husband, Adam, traveled to Southern California and met Wysocki at a steakhouse: "It was so emotional," Perkins recalled. "I think we hugged for five minutes."
"We sat and stared at each other a lot," Wysocki says. "And for me it was almost awkward because I felt like I hadn't done much of anything, but here I was up on this pedestal because I had saved her life."
Since then, the friendship has blossomed and now includes their families. They are even planning a camping trip for both clans at Lake Arrowhead.
For Perkins, meeting her donor and knowing that her transplant happened "because of someone else's beautiful, selfless act has really changed the path of my life. I appreciate every day and realize that my relationships and quality of life are what are truly important."