Even as a little girl Kathleen Robinson was the first to put the kibosh on any kind of birthday celebration for herself. For her, it wasn’t a happy day.
“I refused to celebrate my birthday when I found out I was adopted [at age 9],” she said. “It was a hard thing for me because I thought, ‘Do my biological parents think of me?’ It was a really depressing day for me, so I didn’t want it to ever be celebrated.”
But birthdays aren’t so taboo anymore for Robinson, a 54-year-old San Jose resident, who gained a long-lost family last year following years of searching for her biological parents and any siblings. One of those biological siblings, Deana Harn, is now among her best friends. The two marvel at how they could spend their lives unaware of each other while living only 15 minutes apart in San Jose and Milpitas.
The sisters were united last spring by the results from a genetic test from Sunnyvale-based 23andMe, a personal genomics and biotechnology company.
Of course, Robinson and Harn aren't alone. Databases from companies that do personal, at-home genetic testing, like 23andMe, ballooned to more than 26 million people in 2018, after the FDA made it easier for at-home testing to get approved.
At-home genetic testing purchases have slowed in recent years—likely due to privacy concerns and costs, analysts say. Even so, Robinson and Harn are still part of a growing number of people who have ordered the kit, spit in a tube, mailed it back and waited anxiously for the results. Many who take the test are wondering if it will reveal something they might not know about themselves or raise a flag about certain markers for health risks. The most common reason people tend to take the test is to find out about their ancestry, a study by IBM Watson health and NPR shows.
Robinson fit in that group. She took the test about a decade ago in hopes of finding her biological family, but got few good leads.
“I like to log back onto 23andMe to see any changes in my result as more people take the test as time goes on,” she said. “But I got to a point where I kind of gave up. I was getting emails on how there was a possibility of a match for a fifth or sixth cousin and that we might be related.”
Then her niece, Amanda Yates, curious about her ancestry and health risks, ordered a test last April. The two had a 29 percent DNA match. To put that into perspective, siblings share around half their DNA, half-siblings share a quarter and first cousins, on average, share 12.5 percent.
Yates and her sister, Samantha Harn, puzzled out the connection. “I’m thinking, ‘No way,’” Deana Harn said, recalling her reaction when her daughters told her they'd found her sister. “We started freaking out and then, of course, we sent out an email request to her.”
Robinson met her biological sister and nieces for the first time via a video chat. “It was amazing,” Robinson said. “I think they were concerned I might be angry, but we all had so many questions. It was like finding out about someone’s life story when you meet them for the first time.”
Meeting in person in June was cathartic for the pair. Robinson learned her parents, Dick and Nancy Sigsbee, gave her up for adoption at seven months old, shortly before they got married. They had two more children after that. In October, she met the Sigsbees, her biological mother and father, at Casa Azteca in Milpitas and connected over their dry sense of humor.
Robinson says her adoptive parents were loving. She was born with a rare condition in which her hips were out of their socket and doctors said she would likely never walk, but after 18 months in a body cast, she proved them wrong. “It was difficult to find parents who would adopt me,” Robinson said.
When she thought of finding her biological family, Robinson worried about hurting her adoptive parents, Emmett and Patricia Lynch, who struggled each time one of her three adopted siblings found their biological families.
“I think each time one of my siblings told my mom, it killed her,” Robinson said. “For a year she would be upset and I’d be the one to nurture her back and say no one could ever replace you. When a child finds their biological parents, the parents who adopted you don’t quite know how to deal with that.”
Emmett Lynch died last year and Patricia Lynch has late-stage dementia. “For me, it was a bit of serendipity,” Robinson said of the new connection to her biological family.
Now Robinson and Harn say they're making up for lost time.
“Kat was definitely a missing piece in our family,” Harn said. “Now we found our missing piece.”