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Hayli's saving grace

Like many little girls, Hayli was excited to be a flower girl. But, not like many girls, she received the honor from a very special stranger — April, the woman who donated her bone marrow so Hayli could receive a lifesaving transplant at St. Jude.

When Hayli was a baby, her parents had reason to fear she wouldn’t grow up. Then St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital gave them cause for hope.

It was 2010, and Hayli was 1 year old. After she started holding her legs and crying in pain, she was admitted to the local hospital with what doctors thought was a bone infection. But soon the cause was pinpointed as acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer. “She was very, very sick,” remembered Hayli’s dad, Mike. “They really couldn’t give us an answer on what the outcome was going to be.”

Hayli’s doctors referred her to St. Jude. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate in the U.S. from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since the hospital opened in 1962.

At St. Jude, Hayli received intensive chemotherapy and a natural killer (NK) cell transplant and was able to return home cancer-free.

But only a year later, Hayli’s cancer was back. This time, Hayli’s St. Jude doctors knew she'd need a bone marrow transplant to survive. The procedure, using cells from an anonymous donor, was a success, and today, Hayli’s cancer has been in remission for more than three years.

In the worst case scenario, it’s the best place to be.

Amanda, Hayli's mom

This July, Mike and Amanda, Hayli's mom, watched proudly as the little girl they almost lost marched down the aisle as a flower girl in the wedding of a very special stranger— April, the woman who donated her bone marrow so Hayli could receive the lifesaving transplant at St. Jude.

“I actually had an aunt who died as an adult from leukemia,” said April. “And as a high school student, I got to fundraise for St. Jude and visit the hospital. When Hayli’s family and I finally got to exchange information, it was so amazing to see all they had been through for the years I hadn’t known them.”

“It was just a complete honor that Hayli’s donor asked her to be in her wedding,” said Mike. “To be able to meet April for the first time in such a special way was amazing.”

Hayli had missed an opportunity to be a flower girl in her cousin’s wedding while she was battling cancer. But this time, at April’s wedding, 5-year-old Hayli was ready and able to take her turn in the spotlight. And the little girl didn’t shy away from the attention. She wore a sleeveless ivory dress with a bow at the waist and a little crown of flowers, carried a butterfly wand and danced the night away with the 6-year-old ringbearer.

“My favorite part was just walking down the aisle,” she said.

Though finished with treatment, Hayli still returns to St. Jude for checkups. Her parents can now look forward to maybe one day seeing her walk down the aisle again — as a bride. “The second chance St. Jude gave us with our daughter is like no other,” said Mike. “They gave us our daughter back.”

“They took care of me really good,” said Hayli, “and I love St. Jude.”

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