TAMPA — Justyna Goletz didn't know who she was helping or whether it would work.
All she knew was that her bone marrow was an exact match for a cancer patient thousands of miles away. She donated her tissue in Germany and it was flown to Florida, where Kristen Baldwin waited.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, Baldwin was in remission. But there was a 50 percent chance that the aggressive cancer would return. A bone marrow transplant could make those odds disappear.
Six years after her bone marrow traveled halfway around the world, Goletz finally met the life she helped save on Saturday.
"Now I really know what I did," said Goletz, 31, through tears moments after being introduced to Baldwin, 29.
The two women were brought together on stage at the Tampa Convention Center as the Moffitt Cancer Center celebrated its 11th blood and marrow transplantation reunion.
The event allows patients to reunite with their donors and to meet others facing the same situation. At each event, Moffitt chooses a patient and their donor and pays to bring them together so they can meet for the first time.
"I am so happy and blessed," Baldwin said. "What she did for a complete stranger all the way across the world is amazing."
Goletz submitted a DNA sample to the registry in 2004. She joined after learning that a colleague at Volkswagen Group, where she still works in management training, needed a donation. She wasn't a match for him but her information stayed in the database.
Then in 2006, Baldwin was diagnosed with AML after she had graduated with a special education degree from the University of Florida. She was about to start a master's program. She was 22.
"My whole life just turned upside down," Baldwin said.
There was a 25 percent chance that her only brother would be a bone marrow match. But he wasn't. Doctors then turned to the National Marrow Donor Program Registry.
Two years after her donation, Goletz heard from the organization again. A series of tests showed she would be a perfect match for Baldwin.
At the time she was told only two things: it was a woman from America and they were about the same age.
"I just thought about how the same thing could happen to me," Goletz said.
The donation procedure was quick. She was back at work the next day.
"It only took me four hours to save her whole life," Goletz said.
After years of recovery, Baldwin's health and life are back on track. She now teaches prekindergarten for children with special needs in Sarasota.
The registry requires donor and patient to wait two years before contacting each other. When that period ended, Baldwin started corresponding with Goletz via text messages and emails while she continued her recovery.
By the time they met Saturday, Baldwin said, the two had already formed a bond.
One year for Christmas, Baldwin bought two silver bracelets with the word "friends" engraved on them in tiny script. She kept one for herself and sent the other to Goletz.
As the two embraced Saturday, the matching bracelets dangled from their wrists.
"We have this bond," Baldwin said. "We're always going to be connected."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.