Hong Kong : It was just after Christmas 2003 when six-year-old Chinese girl Kailee Wells looked up at her adoptive mother Linda and said: “Mummy, I am going to miss you when I die”.
They were words no mother would want to contemplate. Linda felt like crying, but held back her tears to reply: “Sweetheart, mummies usually die before their little girls.”
She knew, however, there was a very strong possibility Kailee would die before her. She had been diagnosed with severe aplastic anaemia when she was five, and on many occasions doctors had told the couple their daughter had only days or weeks of life left.
But they never gave up hope.
“We always believed we were going to keep our girl and we had to keep fighting for her. If she was going to make it through then by God we were going to save her,” her father Owen Wells said.
Their journey took them from New Mexico, across the world to Asia, where the plight of Kailee touched the hearts of thousands of people. And this Christmas, what seemed an impossible dream has been realised after a Chinese donor who heard of her plight stepped forward and provided the marrow that has given her the gift of life.
In 2002, Kailee had been diagnosed with the rare and potentially fatal blood condition similar to leukaemia, in which her bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. A bone-marrow transplant was her only chance of survival. A biological sibling would have had one in four chances of being a match for the transplant. But Kailee’s case was complicated by the fact that her biological family were unknown.
She was born in Hunan, China in 1997 and abandoned on the steps of a teacher-training college when she was 10 days old. The Wells fell in love with her and adopted her, taking her back to the US a year later.
Without a family match, the Wells had to rely on finding a donor from the registry of marrow donor. That was complicated by the fact there were few ethnic Chinese donors on US registries, drastically reducing the chance of finding the right match.
“We were told the odds of finding a donor were 10 million to one. The Chinese Marrow Donor Programme had barely started and only had something like 20,000 names on their register,” Wells said.
By 2003, when it failed to turn up a donor, Linda set out for China in an attempt to track down a biological sibling.
Her mission was unsuccessful but it attracted the attention of the local media, and Kailee became the focus of a campaign by the Red Cross Society of China to encourage more people to come forward and sign up as donors.
The drive worked. The number of names on the register grew, and a match was found, but it was not perfect. Doctors went ahead with the transplant in January 2005 but Kailee’s body rejected it.
The couple decided to return to China on another recruitment campaign. They had their bags packed on a day in September 2005 when the news came through that a match had been found.
Wang Lin, a 28-year-old doctor from the eastern city of Hangzhou, had heard about Kailee and offered to become a donor. He was that one man in 10 million who could save her life.
“It was literally the day before we were due to leave when we learned we had the perfect match from Wang Lin,” Wells said. “It’s amazing. We were in a state of disbelief for days. We felt like we had won the lottery.”
Kailee underwent a successful transplant in November 2005 with the bone marrow donated by Wang. She had a second transplant from him earlier this year to solve a few problems and is now well and happy.
“She will be 11 in January,” said Wells. “She is now a fifth grader at school and is on the honour roll, which is amazing when you consider all the school she has missed.”
This week Kailee made her first return trip from their home, now in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the land of her birth, for an emotional meeting with the man who saved her life.
Kailee presented a tearful Wang with a picture frame inscribed with the words: “You are my hero. I will love you forever”. In response, Wang swept her up in a big hug.
“It was a honour to meet him,” Wells said. “He is a very compassionate and gentle person. We called him our ‘special daddy’ and hope we can keep in touch with him and share our lives with him as Kailee gets older.”
This Christmas will be an extra special one for Kailee. As well as getting to know her birth country over the holiday with her family, she will be also be helping recruit more marrow donors, as a way of thanking the country and all the people who saved her life.
“She is enjoying the experience very much of being in China. It’s a place we have a special bond with. China has given Kailee life twice, and we feel very blessed.”