It's been over a year since 8-year-old Joseph Montañez received a life-saving bone marrow transplant, and since the June 2019 procedure, his mom, Ashley Montañez has dreamed of meeting the woman who donated bone marrow to her son, putting his acute myeloid leukemia into remission.
But due to COVID-19 restrictions and the need for social distancing, Montañez worried that opportunity would take even longer.
Thanks to City of Hope, the cancer treatment facility where Joseph's transplant was performed, Montañez and her family recently had the opportunity to meet Joseph's donor virtually in a Zoom reunion that will be shown as a part of the center's virtual bone marrow donor reunion on October 16.
Montañez, who lives in California, says seeing the face of the woman who saved her son's life was an emotional moment for her, even though the reunion occurred on a computer screen.
"We waited a year to meet Vanessa and were so excited to meet the woman that saved our son," Montañez said. "We couldn’t wait to show her our appreciation and love for what she did for our family. It felt unreal to meet and talk to her after so long."
Vanessa Flores, 43, signed up to be a bone marrow donor 18 years ago at a company blood drive and had forgotten about the commitment until she began receiving calls and letters from Be The Match, a bone marrow registry that matches donors with recipients.
"When I got the letter, I said, 'OK, I need to call back,' and that's when they explained what was happening," said Flores, who lives in New Mexico. "Right away, I said yes. It was meant to be. After the consent, I was told that it was a child. Then, about two weeks before the actual donation, I learned it was a boy. I really thought Joseph was about 9 years old. I had no idea he was so young."
Joseph was 6 years old in January 2019 when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia after his mom was concerned about his persistent stomach ache. The boy's condition was severe and did not respond to two rounds of chemotherapy. Without a bone marrow transplant, doctors told Montañez and her husband, Joseph had little chance of survival.
"I was devastated to see our child go through everything and not know if or how long he was going to have to keep fighting," Montañez recalled.
Soon after, Montañez learned that Joseph and Flores had matched.
"We were excited when we found out there was a perfect match for Joseph," said Montañez. "We couldn’t believe it. We were worried we would have to wait months to find someone for him."
Once bone marrow is donated and a transplant occurs, both parties must wait for one year to decide whether or not they want to meet. Both the Montañez family and Flores, who has three children of her own, were eager to meet once the time had come.
But, due to COVID-19 restrictions, they learned they wouldn't be able to meet in person.
City of Hope then offered to connect Flores with Joseph via Zoom as a part of a yearly donor reunion program, which was also moved virtually this year due to coronavirus.
Earlier this month, more than a year after the transplant, the pair finally met on Zoom.
"Joseph loved talking to her," said Montañez, adding that she hopes once the pandemic ends, she'll be able to meet Flores in real life.
So what does Joseph, who turned 8 earlier this month, think of the woman who saved his life?
"She is totally awesome," he told TODAY Parents. "And I want to thank her for the good blood and the Godzilla for my birthday."