Dressed in her wedding gown, Hayden Hatfield knelt in front of a 3-year-old girl with dark hair and eyes and handed her a gift box wrapped in a pink ribbon.
Inside was a small bracelet of pearl beads and a charm inscribed with the little girl’s name – Skye. A few hours later, Skye walked down an aisle at Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford as Hayden’s flower girl when Hayden married her husband, Adrian Ryals.
Hayden and Skye had only met in person two days prior, but they already had a deep connection. Hayden’s bone marrow helped Skye fight leukemia. And in turn, Skye helped give Hayden find purpose.
It’s a bond that Skye is still too young to fully understand.
“She has defied all odds,” said Talia Savren-McCormick, Skye’s mother. “We call her Warrior Skye, and she’s the toughest little cookie I know. She impresses me; she’s my hero and Hayden’s a part of that. We’re just so honored that Hayden wants to be a part of our lives.”
In 2015, Hayden was walking to class one day at Auburn University when she passed a table for Be the Match, a national registry of volunteer bone marrow donors based in Minnesota. Hayden had donated blood and platelets in the past, so she decided to register with Be the Match.
“It’s the easiest thing,” Hayden, 25, said. “It’s a cheek swab – swab your cheek, put it in an envelope and they send it off … I thought there’s like a one in a gazillion chance that I would ever be a match, but at least I’m on there.”
Todd and Talia Savren-McCormick live in Ventura, California. Todd, 37, is a carpenter and Talia, 34, is a teacher. They married in 2012, and in March 2015, they welcomed their daughter into the world.
Around 4 months old, Skye developed small pinprick bruise-like spots on her body. Doctors initially diagnosed it as a low platelet disorder. But Skye stayed sick – whooping cough, respiratory viruses. She’d get better only to get sick again. Her spleen was enlarged and her hemoglobin started going down, requiring blood transfusions. Doctors then thought she might have an autoimmune illness she could outgrow with steroid treatment. But, still, Skye didn’t get better.
Finally, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Skye had juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, a rare childhood leukemia known as JMML. She needed a bone marrow transplant.
Todd and Talia received their daughter’s diagnosis four days before her first birthday.
Finding a match
Be the Match helps patients who need bone marrow or stem cell transplants due to leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell anemia as well as inherited immune system disorders. How quickly a match is made between a patient and a donor varies widely. The organization expects to add 350,000 new members to the registry this year, and there are more than 19 million potential donors on the registry.
“And believe it or not there are still patients who cannot find a match,” said Mary Halet, director of community engagement with Be the Match.
Bone marrow matches are made by matching human leukocyte antigen types, which are inherited. A person’s best chance for a match is usually a donor from the same ethnic background. Matches can be more difficult to make for people who are Asian, African-American, Hispanic and Native American. People who are multi-racial may also have a hard time finding donor matches.
Be the Match spends a lot of time in areas with diverse populations – such as college campuses − trying to increase the diversity among donors on the registry.
Doctors prefer bone marrow donors between the ages of 18 and 44 to increase the chances of a transplant’s success. Donors come off the bone marrow registry at age 61 for the donor’s safety, Halet said.
“The healthiest points in our lives are when we are younger,” she said. “So transplant doctors prefer young donors.”
Almost a year after Hayden walked up to the table on the Auburn campus, she got a phone call from a coordinator with Be the Match. Hayden, then 23, was a match for a baby girl with leukemia.
“I had been struggling for a while; I had changed my major,” Hayden said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life and my career. I was feeling really down about everything. I was having trouble finding myself and feeling like I had a purpose. So, the more that I talked to this coordinator with Be the Match, I started feeling like what if this is my purpose?”
For her part as the donor, Hayden traveled to UAB Hospital in Birmingham for a detailed physical that included a chest X-ray, an EKG and numerous blood draws. In July 2016, doctors surgically extracted bone marrow from the back of Hayden’s pelvic bone. The next day – July 29, 2016 − at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, Hayden’s bone marrow was transplanted into Skye’s bloodstream.
Several weeks after the transplant, donor cells from Hayden had established themselves in Skye’s marrow and were producing healthy new blood cells.
Skye’s spleen, however, had to be removed and tests showed it was full of blood cells from past transfusions and the original leukemia. A bone marrow biopsy showed the level of donor cells had dropped from 100 percent to 30 percent. Doctors used what was left of Hayden’s donated cells to do a secondary infusion. Skye’s condition improved, but by Thanksgiving 2016 one of her eyes had become swollen shut and dark purple. It was lymphoma, a secondary cancer known as post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease. The lymphoma was in the eyelid, both sides of Skye’s neck, her chest and her back.
A second transplant was scheduled, although Skye was only given a 10-percent chance of survival. She went through four rounds of chemotherapy for the lymphoma (which was nearly all gone after the second treatment) and an additional round to prepare her for the second transplant. Doctors opted to go with a different donor from Hayden and used peripheral blood stem cells rather than bone marrow. Skye’s second transplant was done in April 2017.
Skye went home the following month.
An extended family
Hayden still didn’t know anything about who received her bone marrow other than the recipient was a young girl. The same was true for the Savren-McCormicks. They didn’t know anything about their daughter’s donor.
Under Be the Match policies, donors and recipients have to wait a year after the transplant before they can make contact.
“But to know that she was just a baby and had her whole entire life ahead of her, that really made me feel like this was my obligation − to do everything I could for this family,” Hayden said. “The first thing I think about is what if it was my child? What if it was somebody I knew? What if I’m the one who needed help? I would want someone to help me.”
Hayden had sent Talia and Todd an anonymous donor letter explaining how the experience had changed her, how it focused her on helping others.
“It changed everything. It changed the way I looked at life,” Hayden said. “It changed the way I saw my life. It really changed how I go about my everyday life. It really put things in perspective.”
For 10 months, Todd and Talia Savren-McCormick focused their attention on Skye. Talia took a year off from teaching. Todd had already quit work as a carpenter to stay home with Skye. Family and friends supported them with visits and meals.
Talia kept Hayden’s letter with her and cried every time she read it. She showed it to everyone who visited Skye’s hospital room. Talia knew she wanted to meet Skye’s donor and hoped the donor would feel the same way. She wanted the donor to be a part of their lives as a family.
“In my opinion and in my heart, that’s who they are,” Talia said. “That’s what Hayden has become.”
When they finally did learn each other’s identities, they began emailing and communicating through Facebook. They spoke on the phone at Thanksgiving.
Hayden graduated from Auburn University in December with a degree in psychology.
And when Skye’s birthday rolled around in March, Hayden sent her a birthday present with a wedding invitation for her June 9 wedding. Hayden knew it was a long shot, but she wanted the Savren-McCormicks to not only come to her wedding but for Skye to be her flower girl.
To everyone’s surprise, Skye was cleared to fly to Alabama.
When the Savren-McCormicks arrived in the Wiregrass on June 7, Skye got a lot of attention. Hayden said she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I just feel like they’re family and they’re so special to me and the whole thing helped them, but it also changed my life,” Hayden said. “After everything, after this journey, it’s like God showed me this is why you were here. You were here to help this little girl and everything else will fall into place.”