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'Truly grateful': Strangers linked by life-saving marrow donations

There were hugs and tears as Shauna McLaughlin, a bone-marrow donor, finally met Markel Carras, the woman whose life she saved, for the first time in New York.

“I can't thank her enough for sharing her kindness towards me and I urge everyone else to share their kindness, even the littlest amount that you have,” Carras told TODAY as part of the the #ShareKindness campaign.

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Be the Match: How a cotton swab is helping save tens of thousands of lives

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Across the country in Phoenix, Arizona, 7-year-old Anna DeLaney, 7, was nearing her 100th day of recovery after a life-saving bone-marrow transplant from blood cells sent from a European donor.

What do Anna and Markel they have in common? They’re among the more than 80,000 people who've been given a second chance at life through BeTheMatch.org, the world's largest registry for bone marrow donors. It connects blood cancer patients with people who are their genetic match.

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Anna’s health problems began last December when she started coming down with high fevers that wouldn’t go away, said Melissa DeLaney, her mom. After the girl was referred to the bone marrow transplant clinic at Phoenix Children's Hospital, the family learned she had chronic active Epstein-Barr virus. The rare condition means the body makes too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.

“When we looked it up, it was really scary and definitely life threatening,” said Tim DeLaney, Anna’s dad.

When the family started looking for a bone marrow donor, there were hopes Anna’s 4-year-old sister could contribute, but she was not a good match. About 70 percent of patients who need a transplant don't have a fully matched donor in their family, Be The Match noted.

That’s when the DeLaneys turned to the registry, which includes almost 13.5 million volunteers. They found two perfect matches, but both were unavailable. A close match then emerged, which raised the risk of complications a bit, but Anna’s doctors recommended going forward. A few days later, the donor agreed to proceed.

“I think about our donor a lot, so I hope to meet him one day and tell him from the bottom of my heart how truly grateful I am to him for saving our daughter's life,” Melissa said.

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After Anna underwent three weeks of chemotherapy, doctors performed the bone marrow transplant.

“I held the cells in my hand and just looked at them and thought, this is so incredible that this came halfway across the world. It literally is something you regenerate. You don't have to give up anything to donate,” Melissa said.

“It started by swabbing a cheek and it turned into a long life for a beautiful little girl,” Tim added. “This year we've experienced random acts of kindness, deliberate acts of kindness and anonymous acts of kindness and I think a good theme for our family this year and beyond would be to share kindness.”

When Markel Carras was diagnosed with leukemia at age 18 and began looking for a bone marrow donor, even her twin brother wasn't a match. So she leaned heavily on the Be The Match registry and was eventually connected with McLaughlin.

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“I urge everyone who is old enough to get on the registry because it really will save thousands of people's lives — it saved my life,” Carras said, noting her gratitude to her donor.

McLaughlin described it as a “very painless and easy process.”

“It was just such an incredible thing to think, wow, there's somebody out there who has my blood and you know these cells in her and that helped her beat this terrible disease,” she said. “It can be a small thing that you do every day and it can be this huge gift of kindness.”

If you would like to join the registry, visit BeTheMatch.org for more information. The process starts with an ordinary cotton swab.

This story is part of our #ShareKindness series. Help us grow the good this holiday season by sharing this story and other stories of kindness on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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