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In a beautiful wedding in June, Hayden Ryals married her fiancé, Adrian, and met the little girl whose life she saved with a bone marrow donation nearly two years earlier.
Ryals says her own life was saved, too, when she learned she was a match.
Ryals, who recently moved from Alabama to Florida, has an anxiety disorder she says has caused her to question her purpose in life and feel depressed in the past. While walking across her college campus in 2015, Ryals happened upon a table for Be The Match — an organization that manages a registry of bone marrow donors to help patients with blood cancer — and asked for more information.
"It gave me joy to know I could be helping someone," said Ryals, who immediately underwent a cheek swab procedure to be added to the Be The Match database. A year later, in April 2016, Ryals received a life-changing phone call.
"I was told I was a match to a baby girl with leukemia and asked if I wanted to move forward with the bone marrow donation process," Ryals recalled.
The answer was yes.
"This was it. This was why I was created," said Ryals. "This child needed me — I was determined to do whatever it took to give her and her family a fighting chance."
The child was Skye Savren-McCormick. Skye's mother, Talia Savren-McCormick, says her daughter was diagnosed with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia — a rare form of pediatric blood cancer — four days before her first birthday.
"The only option for survival was a bone marrow transplant and it had a 50 percent chance of success," Savren-McCormick told TODAY Parents.
On July 28, 2016, Ryals had surgery to harvest her bone marrow; Skye received it the next day. In the following months, Skye received a second donation of Ryals' bone marrow and later was diagnosed with a secondary cancer requiring more chemotherapy and a third transplant from a different donor.
"She defied all odds and survived," said Savren-McCormick. "Today she is doing very well — there have been ups and downs with infections and hospitalizations, but overall she's doing great."
One year after a transplant, Be The Match allows donors and recipients to learn one another's identity if both parties consent. Ryals initiated contact and was thrilled in October 2016 when she received an email from Savren-McCormick.
"She told me who she was and said I helped save her daughter's life," said Ryals. "She told me their names and that they lived in California. She said they had waited so long to talk to me, which made my heart stop."
The two families continued to email and call until Skye's approaching birthday gave Ryals an idea.
"I decided to send Skye a birthday present and I also enclosed one of our wedding invitations," said Ryals. "I mentioned I wanted them to have an invitation even if they couldn't come because I wanted them know how special they were to me. I also mentioned it would be absolutely amazing if Skye could be my flower girl."
Savren-McCormick says while they were touched, she and her husband, Todd, thought there was little chance Skye would be healthy enough to go.
"We thought it would be nice, but not realistic," said Savern-McCormick. "Then Skye got off oxygen and her doctor gave her clearance to go — we texted Hayden immediately and started planning."
On June 8, 2018, Skye met Ryals, who she calls "Hay-Hay," for the first time at the wedding rehearsal.
"Skye knew exactly who I was, and as we walked toward one another, I fell to my knees smiling," said Ryals. "No one else in the world existed at that moment and everything was perfect — this little girl and helping her was my purpose and I was in awe to finally be in her presence."
On Ryals' June 9 wedding day, 3-year-old Skye walked down the aisle as her flower girl.
"The day was so special," said Savren-McCormick. "It would have been so meaningful just to meet Hayden, but to go to her wedding and for Skye to be a part of it was magical. Hayden and Skye together was like love at first sight — Skye knows Hayden is someone very special and she loves and talks about her a lot."
Ryals hopes she and her husband will soon visit Skye in California.
In the meantime, Ryals is grateful for the purpose helping Skye brought to her life.
"She saved my life and will always be my hero," said Ryals. "She has been through a multitude of things early in her life that most people will only ever hear or pray about. She has conquered so much and has the best attitude and is a gem to be around.
"She has given me a new perspective on the world...she is everything to me."