What do you say to someone who saved your life?
"What words come after 'thank you'?" asked Bruce Bowles as he hugged Kayla Dunn for the first time.
Separated by hundreds of miles and many years, it turns out that Dunn, a 22-year-old Wisconsin resident, was a perfect bone marrow match for Bowles, 63, of Lexington.
The two met for the first time Thursday at Blue Grass Airport.
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"It's crazy how God can have two people's lives cross at a specific point," said Dunn, who came to Lexington with her husband, Jon, from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
"I would not be alive it if wasn't for her," said Bowles, who flew the couple to Kentucky as a thank-you. "I would not be here."
Dunn and Bowles were matched through the National Marrow Donor Program in June 2011, six months after Bowles, a retired businessman, was diagnosed with leukemia. He received the transplant shortly after the match was made.
Bone marrow is the soft spongy tissue that lies within the hollow interior of long bones. In adults, marrow in large bones produces new blood cells. Chemotherapy is used to kill the leukemia. A bone marrow transplant allows for new, healthy blood cells to grow.
Dunn, who works as a waitress, had signed up to be a donor four years earlier. A man at her church in Wisconsin was in need of a donor and she wanted to help. She registered by getting her cheek swabbed just after she had turned 18. Then, she said, she kind of forgot about it.
That was until last year. Dunn's phone number had changed so the donor registry contacted her mother. When she got back in touch with the donor program, there was a flurry of activity, blood tests and papers to fill out. "They didn't say it was an emergency, but I could tell they were in a hurry," she said.
Dunn said she never thought about not following through with the donation, but the timing wasn't perfect. She was contacted six weeks before her wedding. But, she said, she couldn't have lived with herself if she knew she could have helped but didn't.
The marrow was harvested from her pelvic bone using a large needle while she was under general anesthesia.
She didn't know anything about the recipient of her bone marrow except that he was a 62-year-old male. For the first six months after she donated, she didn't know whether the bone marrow had helped. She said she was thrilled to learn that the transplant had been successful and that the recipient was recovering. "I was, like, 'yes'!" said Dunn.
Bowles said Dunn's donation came in the nick of time. He had taken 60 rounds of chemotherapy to suppress his immune system so the bone marrow could be effective. There was another donor who at the last minute was found to be incompatible. The chances of finding Dunn, a perfect match, were infinitesimal.
The bone marrow program doesn't allow donors and recipients to contact each other for one year. As soon as that deadline passed, Bowles sought out Dunn. He called her in September. "I don't know how to tell you this," he said in a message, "but you are my donor."
"I just about jumped off the chair," Dunn recalled.
"It was a little clumsy at first," Bowles said, "but we warmed up right away."
Soon they were talking frequently. Although his prognosis is good, Bowles, whose immune system is still recovering, can't fly. So he invited Dunn to Lexington.
There were hugs all around when she got off the plane. Bowles' daughter Ashley took pictures and said "thank you" to the woman who helped her father live and walk her down the aisle for her spring wedding.
There was talk of things to do in Kentucky, the culinary wonder of the Hot Brown and the fine burn of Kentucky bourbon. Bowles has arranged a tour of the Lucille Parker Markey Cancer Center and a gathering of friends at his house.
The brief visit will likely go by too soon, but the bond Dunn and Bowles share is lasting.
What's it like knowing you saved a life?
Dunn paused a minute and then smiled: "There are just no words to explain it."