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Mike Ford didn't know whether to believe the voice coming out of his cell phone. Ford was on his daily commute along Interstate 5 in Seattle last summer when he took a call from someone who identified herself as a private investigator.

"She said, 'I've got some good news and some bad news,'" said Ford, who works at a Coca-Cola bottling plant. " 'The good news is you've got a sister.' I was like, 'A what? A sister?' "

The bad news was even more startling: His sister was sick, and the blood flowing through Ford's veins held her only chance at survival.

Ford wasn't sure what to make of what he was hearing, but he was certain of this: If he did have a sister who needed his help, she would get it.

"I knew I was going to do it," he said. "I would do whatever I had to do."

Sha'Ri Eggum's family was planning her funeral.

The Billings woman was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on May 3, 2005. Two days later, she started chemotherapy.

But the treatments were a long shot. Doctors at the Hematology-Oncology Centers of the Northern Rockies didn't expect them to make the 32-year-old hair stylist better.

"She had a really bad leukemia," said Dr. Patrick Cobb, who helped Dr.

Martin Lucas treat Eggum. "If you don't treat it aggressively, most people die from this."

Of all the leukemias that are diagnosed, only about 5 percent are the kind that was detected in Eggum's blood. During almost 20 years in medicine, Cobb had seen only one other case of the disease.

Acute myeloid leukemia is a cancer that destroys a person's bone marrow, and bone marrow produces blood cells.

"The only way to cure this is to get a bone marrow transplant," Cobb said.

A transplant must come from someone who has the same tissue type as the person who is sick. In most cases, clinicians look for potential donors among a patient's blood relatives.

But Eggum was adopted, and she had never had contact with anyone in her biological family.

When a blood relation cannot donate, clinicians turn to organizations such as the National Marrow Donor Program, which keeps a registry of potential donors and their tissue types.

Tissue types vary among races, and historically, registries have struggled to recruit minority donors. That means a leukemia patient with minority heritage — especially Asian, Latino, American Indian or black heritage — is less likely to find a match through a registry than is a patient of Caucasian descent.

Eggum is part black and part American Indian, which further reduced her chances of finding a match from a registry. In fact, there wasn't one.

"The doctors kind of gave up on me," she said.


Her sister didn't.

Tanya Serrata, who is five years older than Eggum, also was adopted. Last spring, Serrata hired a private investigator to find her birth parents.

Before the detective got to work, Serrata found out about Eggum's grim prognosis. She asked the investigator to switch gears and look for Eggum's biological family instead.

"She needed it more than I did," Serrata said.

Growing up, the girls always knew that Eggum had a biological sibling, who was listed incorrectly as a sister on Eggum's adoption paperwork. They also knew her biological mother's name: Judith Ford.

Eggum had tried to find her birth mother once before. The summer she turned 25, Eggum lived with her adoptive dad in the Seattle area, where she knew she had been born.

She spent a day paging through the Ford listings in the telephone book and even tried calling a few of them.

"I just asked for Judith Ford," she said. "(I asked) 'Do you know Judith Ford? Judith Ford? Judith Ford? Judith Ford?' I must have called 40 people that day."

Six years later, it took the private investigator a week to find the right Judith Ford and her son — Eggum's biological brother.

Eggum got the news in her hospital room.

"It was crazy," she said. "I was like, 'Wow.' "


Mike Ford still hadn't met his sister when he got tested to see if he could give her his bone marrow.

"It was such an incredible long shot," Cobb said. "There was only a one in four chance that he would be a match even if we did find him."

This time, the odds were in Eggum's favor: Her brother was a match.

In September, the day after the siblings met for the first time, Eggum checked into the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where she began treatments that killed all of her bone marrow.

Weeks later, it took two hours to withdraw enough stem cells from Ford's blood to give Eggum's body a new start. He watched a Dracula movie during the procedure.

The next day, Oct. 20, the cells were transmitted into Eggum's bloodstream. She watched the same Dracula movie — without knowing her brother had picked it a day earlier.

After the transfusion, Eggum and Ford became blood relatives in the most literal sense: Ford's blood flows through Eggum's veins.

His stem cells made their way into her bone marrow and began producing healthy blood cells. They are replicas of the ones produced in his own body.

Clinicians monitored Eggum for 100 days after the transplant to make sure her body wouldn't reject it. At the end of that time, she was declared to be in remission.

"This has been a real miracle," said Eggum's mom, Ilene Stroup. "It's so important for adopted children to know of their background for medical reasons."


Since being declared cancer-free, Eggum has been getting to know the brother she didn't know she had.

She is 11 months younger than Ford, who was raised by their biological mother. The siblings also have the same biological father.

"You got to get used to it," Eggum said of learning how to relate to her brother. "What's appropriate? Can I hug him?"

"We found out that's all right," Ford said.

They spent a lot of time together in Seattle after the marrow transplant and connected again in Billings recently. Despite being raised apart, they are very much alike.

"We click real good," Eggum said. "We have the same personality. We do some weird things alike."

They sent Eggum's mom almost identical stained-glass window ornaments for her birthday recently without consulting one another. They wear the same color clothes on the same days without planning it.

They have similar mannerisms and gestures, and they look about as much alike as opposite-sex siblings could possibly look.

Serrata, who eventually found her biological family, experienced a similar sense of wonder about getting to know her biological sister.

"You don't really know these people, but you're connected," she said. "Sha'Ri and I are sisters, but, when you meet someone with the same blood, it's different."

Contact Diane Cochran at dcochran@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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