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Woman meets her 11 blood donors

In a rare opportunity, Alta Ray, 56, got the chance to meet many of the people who saved her life by helping her through 93 blood transfusions. “Had it not been for the gift you gave of yourselves, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” she told her donors.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

As determined single mom Alta Ray battled a rare strain of leukemia, she made sure to thank more than just her lucky stars for her progress. She offered silent gratitude to her angels — the 17 blood donors who went through an arduous process to help her live through 93 blood transfusions.

But in a sweet, almost unheard-of occurrence, the Los Angeles native recently got to meet many of the people who saved her life. Confidentiality laws typically keep blood donors and their recipients from ever knowing who each other are, but the UCLA Medical Center arranged a meet-and-greet between Ray and her donors at a university luncheon.

Looking out at a group of 11 donors at the luncheon, the petite mom of four flashed a winning smile, telling the group, “I’m so grateful, so honored to be here, to be able to look you in the eye and thank you for my life.”

Ray’s story puts a real face on the typically anonymous process of donating blood, and underlines how vital it is in medicine. Ray, 56, was diagnosed in 2008 with acute biphenotypic leukemia, an uncommon and often deadly blood disorder that accounts for just 5 percent of all leukemia cases.

Saving grace
Ray, a teacher and school administrator, told TODAY her life hung in the balance through more than a year of treatments, and she almost died from complications.

“It got so bad that my throat closed down, my heart stopped, I stopped breathing and they had to do a tracheotomy to stabilize me,” Ray said.

But Ray had more than just top-notch physicians on her side. UCLA rounded up not just typical blood donors, but people willing to donate blood platelets, the clotting agent in blood. The process is painstaking and very fatiguing for the donor, and nurses told Ray about the people who were aiding her. One donor even returned for repeated processes when told their platelets were a great match for Ray.

“Each time I received blood, I thanked the person spiritually, emotionally,” Ray told the Los Angeles Times.

A unique opportunity
Ray came out of a year’s blood therapy cancer-free, and staff at the UCLA Medical Center set the wheels in motion to stage a meeting between their success story and the people who made it possible. All told, 17 people were responsible for Ray’s 93 transfusions, In January, 11 jumped at the unique opportunity to meet the woman they saved.

Donor Amy Wong, 37, told UCLA Today that she received an e-mail from the university about possibly meeting her blood recipient. “I just thought it was great,” she said. “One of the things I [was worried about was] that I’m going to start crying!”

Wong held back her tears, but the luncheon did become a hug-fest as Ray wrapped her arms around her saviors. She was shocked to find Wong was the only female among the 11 donors.

“It’s all men!” she exclaimed when meeting the donors. “Men don’t usually do stuff like this. That’s the stereotype.”

Matthew Hoffman, the donors’ ad hoc spokesman, told Ray and the luncheon crowd that he was delighted to put a real-life face to the sacrifice he made in donating blood platelets, saying science is one thing, but humanity is another.

“I can tell you what my blood pressure is, what my temperature is — but the numbers become an abstraction,” he said. “And they all get swept away, and it just comes down to this one person here. And I did feel your telepathic thanks!”

Ray said she not only has a new lease on life, but a new appreciation for the sacrifices people go through when performing the selfless act of blood donation.

“Had it not been for the gift you gave of yourselves, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” she told her donors. “Without you, I’d be on my next life cycle. I’m not through with this one!”

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Giving ‘the best part’
Ray also heard the personal stories of those who donated. Donor David Marks lost his wife to cancer more than 10 years ago, and decided to help others fight for their lives, even though it meant reliving painful memories when he donated at the same hospital where his wife died.

“I get a feeling I’m giving a part of me,” Marks told the L.A. Times. “The best part.”

Ray’s thankful daughter Kemit attended the luncheon with her mom and showered the donors with love as well.

“We never thought it would happen because of the legal [restrictions], but the fact that it did is so amazing,” she told UCLA Today. “When my mom’s donors were coming up, I was like, I’ve got to go hug them or do something! I’m so appreciative. So appreciative.”