St. Jude cancer survivor finally meets her bone-marrow donor - at her wedding

Hillary Husband married her childhood friend over Valentine's Day weekend. The man who helped save her life was there to witness it.

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  •  6 min

Amy Jones

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Hillary Husband and John Pickering of Louisiana had been friends since high school, but it wasn’t until she was in college and had gotten through cancer, and John was deployed with the Marine Corps to Afghanistan, they began to write and realized they liked each other. Really liked each other.

“When I get back, can I take you out?” he messaged her.

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course,’ you know? This is cool,” she said.

And then? Nothing.

Well, something. A few things actually.

Right before he got back home, he messaged her. And she never messaged back.

But it wasn’t cold feet that kept her away.

It was a coma.

Her cancer had returned. She was life-flighted to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she spent her first nine days in a coma. When she came out of it, she had more than 600 messages from various friends. An overwhelming number.

She never saw his text.

Neither one was sure what happened.

It would take them three more years, and an additional cancer recurrence for Hillary, to find that out.

You are real to me

All Rob Vadnais knew about the person getting his bone marrow was she was a 20-year-old woman with leukemia. That was all he needed to know. His Army dad had been exposed to Agent Orange while in Vietnam, and had gotten kidney cancer. 

Rob’s dad passed away in 1983 a month before Rob’s 13th birthday. Sooner than any child should have, Rob became the man of the house.

Hillary Husband

Photo by Meagan Bailey

Following in his dad’s military footsteps, he entered the Navy, and when he learned he could register to become a bone marrow donor, he signed up. Maybe he could save a life someday.

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened in 2013. He and St. Jude saved Hillary.

After the transplant procedure, Hillary and Rob couldn’t reveal their identities for the first year, but they were allowed to send each other letters and small gifts.

When Rob talked to his kids about the young woman who needed bone marrow, it reminded them of the book the Velveteen Rabbit, which tells the story of a stuffed animal’s desire to become real through the love of his owner.

Inspired, he sent Hillary, in care of St. Jude, a rabbit stuffed animal and a letter with a passage from the book. In the passage, an older stuffed animal, the Skin Horse, is talking to the younger stuffed animal, the Velveteen Rabbit, about how the ravages of time can take the beauty from a stuffed animal, but never in the eyes of the person who loves him.

Rob wanted her to know that at a time in her life when she might be feeling the worst, she was already loved by him, a stranger.

Rob explains: “On my license plate, and on my Jeep, it says Mr. Aloha, … ‘Aloha’ means, ‘Sharing the breath of life.’ And I wanted her to know, ‘Hey, even though I don’t know you, I pray every day that you’re going to be OK.’ Yeah, I shared my bone marrow with you, but I’m also sharing my aloha with you. I want to tell you that you’re real to me.”

The gift and the sentiments behind it had a profound effect on Hillary.

“When I tell you I was wailing in the St. Jude A Clinic waiting room,” said Hillary. “My mom and I were just like sobbing messes.”

And though she didn’t know his name, where he lived or really anything about him, except that he had two kids who loved a classic children’s book, he already felt like family to her.

love deferred

Three years passed, and Hillary never really forgot about John Pickering, the sweet guy from high school.

One day while scrolling through social media, Hillary could see that John, who left the Marine Corps in 2014, was doing his Army National Guard training in the same Louisiana city where she was in college.

She still felt the old feelings. “He was posting stuff, and I was literally liking all of his  pictures, and,” she stops to pause and laugh for effect, “he slid into my DMs (direct messages).”

That was in 2016, and they’ve been together ever since.

They’re the perfect polar opposites. “I am so high strung and so talkative and so hard charging,” said Hillary, “and he kind of balances me out because he’s also very ambitious and works hard, but he’s also very steady, and he reminds me to breathe and slow down.”

Hillary admits she tried to scare John off when they first got together by talking about how her cancer could come back at any time. “Early on, I kind of felt like she was trying just to make it clear, ‘Hey, this is what you’re in for,’” said John. “I love her, and was more or less unfazed by it. I fully understood everything she was telling me.”

The first time he went with her to St. Jude for a check-up, he was all in. And I’m like, OK, he really isn’t scared of all this stuff,” said Hillary — and  he developed a deepened sense of what she’d gone through. She’d endured all the pain and uncertainty of cancer, sense of humor and thoughtfulness intact.

“She treats everyone with kindness and respect, no matter if it’s someone that she’s known her whole life or if it’s someone that she’s just met 10 seconds ago,” said John. “She’s got some of the most impeccable character of anyone I know.”

During that visit, “all of my St. Jude people approved of him,” said Hillary. “That was also a bonus.”

After a few years of dating, he proposed.

“We got engaged in December of 2019, when Joe Burrow won the Heisman,” said Hillary, a Louisiana State University football fan. “It was a good day.”

It’s all meant to be

While Hillary, who is working toward a PhD in the sciences, and John, a mechanical engineer, have seen their love deepen through their shared experiences, Hillary and her bone marrow donor Rob have delighted in their similarities, despite never having met.

Without planning it, they both have the same wedding anniversary: Feb. 13. Their families both have strong ties to the military. When Hillary walked the equivalent of a marathon on her St. Jude bone marrow transplant floor in 2013, well, maybe Rob had something to do with that: He ran a marathon; she has his bone marrow.

Read the story of Hillary’s marathon on the St. Jude bone marrow transplant floor. 

They even look alike.

“She could almost pass for one of my own children,” said Rob.

For seven years, she had been waiting to meet Rob. They’d had several missed connections, like the time she planned to drive down to Florida to meet him in person, and his family moved to Delaware. Or the time she happened to be making a trip to nearby Maryland, only to find out Rob’s family had just moved back to Florida.

And last year, in April 2020, she was going to be the surprise guest at the big party planned for his 50th birthday, but it had to be cancelled because of the pandemic.

So Hillary decided that finally, on the occasion of her marriage to John, they would meet.

Actually, it all worked out perfectly. 

Hillary Husband

Photo by Meagan Bailey

The night of the rehearsal dinner, Hillary and John and her family arranged to meet up with Rob’s family a little before the other guests arrived. Decorating for her socially distanced wedding had involved things like “trying to make Germ-X look cute” because the bottles would be out on the tables, but Hillary felt good. She felt prepared.

Hillary and Rob saw each other from across the event space and rushed to say hello.

Rob is called Big Red because he’s a big guy with red hair, and on that night, says Rob, “my eyes were just as red as my hair.”

Hillary cried, too.

How do you thank someone for saving your life? There are no words.

The next day, Hillary Husband-Pickering and John Pickering got married, as their loved ones, including Rob’s family, looked on.

A beautiful bride, a handsome groom, and a story you’d never guess just by looking at them.

It’s a story of missed connections — several of them, in fact. No, scratch that, it’s a story of how love conquers all.

A story that feels, said Hillary, “somehow like it’s all meant to be.”

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