DNA test pays off for Windham woman

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WINDHAM — Melissa Oldakowski’s “family just multiplied” after a DNA test connected her with multiple family members living nearby.

Oldakowski, who grew up in New Gloucester and now lives in Windham, was adopted and loves her family, she said, but “over time, I obviously was curious and wanted to know more” about her family of origin.

For decades, Oldakowski knew nothing about her ancestry or health history. When she tried to fill out paperwork at the doctor’s office for her two young children, she thought, “‘I can’t fill any of this out.’ I didn’t know anything about my health history. I was getting so frustrated.”

When she was 18, Oldakowski connected with her birth mother, but “I think it was too much for her,” she said. That contact didn’t help Oldakowski in her search for other biological family members.

She was inspired when she heard about 23andMe, a biotechnology company that can, with a saliva sample, provide detailed information about genetic health risks, ancestry and traits. And, importantly for Oldakowski, it can connect clients who are DNA relatives — meaning they share segments of their DNA — with each other. 

The testing used is “genotyping, it’s a pretty robust, straightforward way of doing a genetic test in a very focused way,” said 23andMe’s Scott Hadly.

For DNA relatives, Hadly said, “Using algorithms, we can determine by the length of the DNA segments they share and the percentage of DNA they share how closely they are related.”

Oldakowski sent off her sample in September 2018 and got her results six weeks later. Her DNA was matched with a biological great-aunt and a second cousin, both on her mother’s side.

“Within two hours, I was connected with a second cousin on my mom’s side, and I was on the phone with her talking. It was crazy,” Oldakowski said.

Through her 23andMe results, she learned that both sides of her biological family were large, so “it took me a month just to get through everything on my mom’s side.”

The relatives on the DNA match helped her find others, including an aunt, some first cousins, three half-sisters and a grandmother. She began meeting her long-lost family, many of whom live in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She encouraged them to send in their own samples to 23andMe in order to gather more information for the family tree. 

She also discovered some genetic health risks, including lymph cancer and heart issues, and was finally able to confirm her long-suspected diagnosis of lactose intolerance. 

However, there was still a lack of information on her paternal side, and tracking down her father proved difficult. Eventually, with the help of an aunt and a second cousin, she was able to find him in Massachusetts.

“We’ve been talking ever since, almost every day. I’ve seen him a bunch of times. My dad actually just came up for Christmas, spent the night was us and got to meet my parents. My relationship with him has just taken right off,” she said.

Oldakowski said receving this much information and discovering so much family so rapidly is “kind of overwhelming. It’s a lot to take in.”

But she said she “always wanted to know, and I always felt a void, so all of the sudden I had this piece.”

She continues to visit and stay in touch with her newfound family members. 

“It’s been a cool Christmas. My family just multiplied,” she said. 

Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at jvaughan@keepmecurrent.com. 

Windham resident Melissa Oldakowski recently discovered multiple biological relatives thanks to genetic testing.