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Former Chinese Orphans Find Each Other Again Because of Rare Disease They Share

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UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland

Abandoned as toddlers, two little girls who called each other “Meng Meng” and Xi Xi, pronounced, “Sing Sing,” spent their first years of life in an orphanage in southern China. They became the best of friends, each a lifeline for the other in a lonely place.

When Meng Meng was 7, she was adopted by Bryan and Robin Rainey of Charlotte, North Carolina. They named her Mae. At age 9, Sing Sing was adopted by Bruce and Heather Frandsen of Madera, California. They named her Meghan; her nickname was Mai. The two girls thought they’d never see each other again.

Then, a twist of medical fate changed everything.

Mae (“Meng Meng”) and Mai (“Sing Sing”) at the orphanage in China
Courtesy of Heather Frandsen
Both girls suffer from thalassemia, a potentially fatal blood disease that is relatively rare in the United States, but more common in Asia. Its treatment requires transfusions every few weeks or, in some cases, a bone marrow transplant.

Mae was not responding well to transfusions. So, last year, the Raineys, working with the nonprofit organization Be The Match, launched a public effort to find a bone marrow donor. (Because marrow donors need to be more genetically similar than organ donors, Asian patients almost always need Asian marrow donors).

Local news stories on the Raineys got noticed by members of a Facebook group for parents of adopted children with thalassemia. Someone observed that Mae and Mai – the Frandsens belong to the group – were adopted from the same region of China and suggested the families get in touch.

Mae, a fourth-grader who loves ballet and cooking, had been asking her parents for years if she would ever see her friend Sing Sing again. “I would tell her, ‘Baby girl, I don’t know,’ ” Brian, a corporate executive, tells PEOPLE.

“All these kids have are the clothes on their backs and a few pictures given to them by the orphanage. You don’t want to dash their dreams, but we knew there was no real hope of finding this friend.”

A Familiar Face

One day, the Raineys received an email from the Frandsens, with a picture of Mai, now 11, who loves to color and has a great belly laugh. They showed the picture to 10-year-old Mae.

“Her face went white, she grabbed her photo album and turned to the one picture we have of [them both] and said, ‘It cannot be!’ ” Bryan recalls, getting choked up at the memory. “We sent our picture back to them and asked if the [other] girl in the picture was their daughter.”

The Frandsens showed the picture to Mai – and got a similar reaction. The picture also tapped into a wellspring of memories of life in the orphanage.

“I learned more in that minute conversation about her life in China than in the years before that,” Heather Frandsen tells PEOPLE.

The Raineys planned a trip to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, which has a well-known thalassemia program, to meet with doctors there – and reunite Mae with her long-lost buddy.

Best Friends Forever

The two girls met Feb. 22 at a hotel near the hospital. The families took their daughters shopping and to eat in Chinatown. “When I saw her, I was really shy,” Mai recalls. “Then we started playing like we used to. It was a little bit new to me. She was taller and I was shorter.”

“But we had fun in Chinatown and it was good. I want to go to Hawaii and maybe Mae could come. That would be so fun. Maybe we could swim with dolphins.”

Mae and Mai
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland
Says Mae: “We took a little while to get used to each other. What was interesting was that she didn’t talk about China once she came here, so her mom didn’t know the stories. So I told her about the time she wanted to put make-up on me with markers and I told her we would try it on her first – and it didn’t come off! I told her mom a lot of stories.”

Dr. Ash Lal, director of the thalassemia program at Benioff Children’s Hospital, says the girls’ amazing story is helping educate the public. “It’s mindboggling when you think about these two girls meeting each other and bringing attention to this disease ” Dr. Lal says.

Mai, who cried all the way home after having to say goodbye to Mae, is looking forward to a joint trip the families are planning to Disney World, with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation (fulfilling a wish for Mai’s adopted sister, Melissa, 7, who also has the blood disease).

“I’m not sure what we will do in Florida,” Mai says. “I want to see a princess and swim. We will play together and spend time. We will have ice cream for breakfast.”

Adds Mae: “It’s cool to find my best friend since I was 5 years old.”

Their families are thrilled. “You know ‘mei mei’ means Little Sister,” Bryan says. “Now, they both share the same name, the same history, the same blood disorder. They will need each other for a very long time.”

Mae is still looking for a bone marrow donor. To learn more, go to join.bethematch.org/mae