MILL CREEK — Most people find spam in their inbox.
Kelly Howell found a sister.
What’s up with that?
In the crazy world of mail-order genetic tests for the masses, Howell’s story might seem mundane.
“It happens to people every day,” said Howell, 53, who was adopted at birth. “It’s not earth-shattering.”
And yet it is.
Howell, a busy mom of three teenage daughters, took a 23andMe DNA test in early 2019.
After getting the heritage and trait information the DNA test provided, Howell clicked on the optional DNA relative tool but rarely checked her inbox.
Her curiosity was tempered by fear of what the test could reveal. There was a certain security in not knowing who might lurk out there.
Then in April …
“It was the most amazing surprise ever when I opened it up and saw that I might have a connection,” she said. “I kept clicking on buttons and there she was.”
There was a match with a half-sister who had taken a 23andMe test.
They connected through mutual consent, first by email.
She and Linda Holt, 55, share the same mother but have different fathers. Both women were raised by adoptive families in different regions of California.
The sisters met in October. They are making up for lost time the best they can.
This Christmas, she sent Holt a mug that read “Sisters are built-in best friends” and a heart-shaped ornament with a photo of them drinking mimosas.
The gift that keeps giving
DNA tests are a fun holiday present — perfect for the person who has everything or that friend you just know must be part Neanderthal.
“We have 10 million customers to date,” said Lindsay Grove, spokesperson for the California-based 23andMe.
These are customers, not patients or clients. It’s not a legal kinship test. And the tests are largely unregulated.
The DNA Relatives feature is an option, Grove said.
“All customers when they receive their results are opted out and they have to choose to opt in,” Grove said. “Once they have opted in, their name will be visible to other customers who also opted in and share their DNA.”
Siblings share about 50% of their DNA, she said. With half siblings, it’s 25%, the same percentage as a grandparent, niece, nephew, aunt or uncles. First cousins have about 12.5% DNA in common, and for second cousins it decreases to 3.13%.
“We report on the amount of DNA that is shared,” Grove said.
Customers are only matched with those in the 23andMe database. Had Howell’s sister used a different service, such as AncestryDNA, they wouldn’t have been connected.
The 23andMe tests are sold online and at select Target, Walmart and Best Buy stores, and are on sale, in case you need a last-minute gift idea.
Regular cost of the 23andMe Ancestry+Trait test is $99. The $199 Health+Ancestry test has health predispositions and wellness information such as the genetic likelihood for Type 2 diabetes, adult-onset vision loss, some BRCA1/BRCA2 variants and Parkinson’s Disease.
The trait report, as far-fetched as this sounds, covers genetic tendencies for earwax type, back hair, unibrow and mosquito bite frequency.
Howell was more interested in her heritage than whether she was less likely than average to have a bunion or perfect pitch.
The adoption agency had listed her ancestry as half Hispanic, a quarter Irish and a quarter German. That was confirmed, along with trace elements from the North African and Arabian regions.
“I ordered a kit and it sat on my desk for a long time because of the idea of filling the tube really grossed me out, I just didn’t want to do it,” Howell said.
It entails spitting into a tube.
In those drops of saliva is a constellation of information that she knew could change her life, in good or bad ways.
Meeting in Mill Creek
Howell has adoptive parents and siblings she loves.
“It never bothered me that I was adopted,” she said. “I was always so grateful and felt so lucky.”
She grew up in Northern California. After marrying, she moved to Chicago and eight years ago to Mill Creek for her husband Rick’s job as a chief information officer at a Seattle law firm. She’s a paraeducator in the Everett School District. Their daughters are Jessie, 18, Sammy, 16, and Becca, 13.
Holt, a project manager, was raised in Southern California by a family who had two biological daughters. She was close to her parents and sisters.
“I never felt different. My mom and dad were my mom and dad,” Holt said. “I never felt like I was missing something until I had children and couldn’t answer all the questions about family medical health. I didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s lives or reach out to my birth mother.”
Holt did a 23andMe test in 2018.
“I kind of chuckled and said, ‘Oh, we are what we were told, we’re a little more Irish than I thought we were,’” Holt said. “I kind of monitored to see if I had any close relatives. The chances seemed so astronomical. I was, ‘OK, I will check it now and then.’ I sent some messages to third and fourth cousins but really nothing connected.”
She’d given up, and was scrolling through her messages while getting a manicure in April.
“I was at the nail salon and I got an email from Kelly saying, ‘I think we’re half sisters.’ I almost fell out of my chair. I couldn’t finish my appointment,” Holt said.
The sisters exchanged emails and texts for several months. They met in person in October on Holt’s visit to see her son, who lives in Redmond.
“When we first met she gave me this necklace that had a little puzzle piece and she has the same one and they fit together,” Howell said. “I wear it all the time, and I wear it with a journey necklace that my parents gave me.”
Howell gave Holt five presents.
“For every decade that I didn’t get to wish her a happy birthday or Merry Christmas,” she said. “One was a necklace that had two hearts, a big heart and a smaller heart inside. A candle that smelled like a margarita — we both share the same passion for wine and things like that … The morning she flew out we started our morning with a mimosa.”
Their first meeting was a double date with their husbands.
“Which was good, because we knew we could keep it together,” Howell said. “I’m not a pretty crier, I make weird faces.”
The next day was sister bonding time.
“Of all the people I could have been related to, I could have been matched up with some weirdo or somebody unkind. She’s such a sweet, wonderful person,” Howell said.
“I told her I loved her the first night we met.”
Some traits possibly revealed in DNA tests
Ability to match musical pitch. Asparagus odor detection. Back hair. Bald spot. Bitter taste. Bunions. Cheek dimples. Cilantro taste aversion. Earlobe type. Earwax type. Eye color. Fear of heights. Fear of public speaking. Finger length ratio. Flat feet. Hair thickness. Ice cream flavor preference. Misophonia, hatred of the sound of chewing. Mosquito bite frequency. Motion sickness. Newborn hair. Photic sneeze reflex in response to bright light. Skin pigmentation. Stretch marks. Sweet vs. salty. Toe length ratio. Unibrow. Wake-up time. Widow’s peak hairline.