Looking out at a room filled with organ donors, organ recipients and their families, Ally Babineaux emphasized that "thank you" was simply not enough.
"I owe them so much more than that," Babineaux, 28, told TODAY.com.
After five long years, the woman once dubbed the "Bionic Bride" was finally about to meet the family of Sade Green, who in February 2011 died from an asthma attack at age 14 — and whose donated heart had kept Babineaux alive.
About a month ago, LifeGift, an organ procurement organization, emailed Babineaux asking if she'd like to meet her donor family April 3 at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, only a few hours from Babineaux's home in Corpus Christi.
"My mom had to read it because I was crying too hard," Babineaux said. "I then made her read it again because I didn't believe her."
It had been three years since Babineaux wrote an emotional 17-page letter to Sade's family, and she was starting to give up on hearing back from them. In the letter she avoided saying "thank you" or "goodbye" because she was hoping for a chance to thank them in person.
"I didn't want to close any doors," Babineaux told TODAY. "Looking back, it took two years before I was ready to reach out, so maybe they needed five years to grieve?"
It was in spring 2008 that Babineaux, then Ally Smith, passed out while visiting a doctor to figure out why she hadn't been feeling well. She was rushed to Texas Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease that often leads to organ failure.
As she waited for a new heart, she was planning both her funeral and her wedding: Mike Babineaux, whom she had met at Texas A&M in fall 2006, had asked her to marry him.
"[Mike] told me even if I was on my deathbed, he was still going to marry me," a tearful Babineaux told Matt Lauer when the couple visited TODAY in 2010, after her weakened heart was surgically replaced with a mechanical pump, which is how she came to be dubbed the "Bionic Bride."
On a subsequent visit to TODAY in 2011, she said she hoped to meet her donor family one day.
Five years later Babineaux's wish finally came true in Fort Worth, when she got the chance to express the impact the teen's donated heart had made on her life to Sade's grandmother, grandfather, three uncles, a cousin, and the aunt who had raised Sade.
"They were absolutely amazing," Babineaux told TODAY.com. "It was nerve-wracking, but I'm so thrilled it happened."
Babineaux was especially nervous about the speech she gave before meeting Sade's family, who were coincidentally sitting next to her own family in the audience of 250.
She gave a brief summary of her story and then got to her main point: how she and so many other organ recipients wish they could do more than just say "thank you."
"If I could give them anything in this world, it wouldn't be enough," Babineaux said. "The speech came straight from the heart, and this one isn't even mine."
Babineaux had undergone another heart transplant in November 2014 after her veins clogged up, a common side effect of undergoing a heart transplant. It was the same issue that had necessitated the replacement of Babineaux's mechanical heart pump with Sade's donated heart on Feb. 8, 2011.
Regarding her second donated heart, "I haven't even thought about a letter or who it could be yet because I'm still kind of living in the past because it was so special," Babineaux said. "I'll never forget the experiences I had while living with Sade's heart and how I'd talk to it like it was a little girl, before I even learned that it, in fact, was."
In the 17-page letter to Sade's family, Babineaux mentioned how she'd never felt alone. Going to the beach, she'd say to her heart, "I don't know if you've ever been, but we're going to go play in the water today at the beach" and she would feel it flutter as if butterflies were jumping out of it.
Sade's family said the girl loved butterflies. Babineaux was happy to hear they had read her letter and taken something away from it.
"Just to meet and hug the people who made that heroic decision and gave Ally a chance to live was a true blessing," Krista Smith, Ally's mom, told TODAY.com.
The two families spent an hour together, but Babineaux didn't want to leave. Since they only live about four hours from each other, she's hoping at some point to meet them again, halfway in between.
"I never wanted to let go of every single family member I met. There will never be enough time to learn everything I want to about Sade," Babineaux said. "After all, she saved my life more than anyone will ever know."