Recipient Karen Castelblanco, right, introduces her donor Yvonne Vohl, who saved her life with a bone marrow transplant. (Don Leach, HB Independent / August 16, 2013)

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Being separated by an ocean and having never met didn't stop Yvonne Vohl from offering a lifeline to Karen Castelblanco.

Castelblanco, 42, of Huntington Beach, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 and received a bone-marrow transplant from Vohl, 41, of Stuttgart, Germany, months after her diagnosis.

Three years later, the women who didn't know one another learned they now share a blood type — and some DNA.

"Before, I was A-positive, and now I'm B-positive," Castelblanco said about her changing blood type, as Vohl simultaneously finished the sentence. "And my [bone marrow] DNA is hers. So in the inside, we're the same."

Tears were shed as Castelblanco, along with her family and friends, gathered at Lake Park in downtown Huntington Beach on Saturday to visit with the woman who saved her life.

Delete Blood Cancer DKMS, a New York-based nonprofit that registers donors from around the world and transports bone marrow for transplants, helped organize the afternoon get-together and flew Vohl and her son out to California for a week.

"This is a celebration, not only to introduce Yvonne to everyone, but also to thank everybody here for everything that they've done," Castelblanco said.

Vohl said she wouldn't have organized such a large event to announce her arrival, but was humbled by the thanks she received from Castelblanco's family and friends.

"They told me that I'm a hero and that they wanted to bow down [to me]," Vohl said.

Monica Pavalko and Shelley Phillipps, friends of Castelblanco, said they've been by her side since Day One, helping her with chores and taking care of her family.

The two said her strong will and determination is what has kept her going for the past three years.

"She never complained or asked, 'Why me? This sucks,'" Phillipps said. "You felt like you couldn't cry in front of her. She always said, 'I'm going to beat this. I'm good.'"

 

On April 22, 2010, Castelblanco was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that lowered her blood cells and substantially lowered her immunity, said Dr. Vinod Pullarkat, her physician at USC Norris Cancer Hospital.

A month before her diagnosis, Castelblanco was participating in a half-marathon in Florida. She said she wasn't doing well in the run and thought she was tired or hadn't trained enough.

"We got home, and I just kept making excuses for why I wasn't feeling well," Castelblanco said. "I was saying I had the flu, or maybe I was pregnant, and all these things as to why I wasn't doing well."

She was admitted to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and underwent a round of chemotherapy, but the leukemia cells were not responding to the treatment, Pullarkat said.

Upon further inspection, Castelblanco was discovered to have an aggressive form of leukemia, and the only viable treatment would be a bone-marrow transplant.

With advancements in medicine and technology, 70% of patients with acute myeloid leukemia have a chance at surviving, Pullarkat said.

In Castelblanco's case, however, there was a slim success rate.