ATLANTA, Ga. -- He is running sprints, leaping toward the football that lands in the hands of his father. Brody Thornburg is having the time of his life inside the College Football Hall of Fame.
He may be the only one who doesn’t have butterflies.
Why would 4-year-old Brody be nervous? What’s going to happen today is a walk in the park compared to all he’s been through.
“We lived in and out of the hospital almost every single night.” Crystal Thornburg said Brody was diagnosed at 2 years old with Aplastic Anemia. The one thing that could save him was a stem cell transplant. She was devastated to learn neither she nor her husband were a match.
What she didn’t know is that hundreds of miles from her North Carolina home, Atlanta artist Amy Rader was getting swabbed at a Be the Match event to see if she was a match for 3-year-old Melissa Depa. Melissa had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Rader remembers thinking, “I had never heard of it and didn’t know anything about bone marrow donation.”
A few months after the Be the Match event, despite intensive treatment and a transplant, Melissa died. But that day, Rader’s phone rang.
“I received a call from Be The Match that I was a full match for a boy who was the same age as Melissa," she recalled. "I never hesitated for a minute. I knew right away I wanted to proceed whatever that meant.”
Amy did not go alone for her bone marrow donation surgery in Washington, D.C. She took Lamby, Melissa’s favorite toy, on a photographic social media journey.
“I think Melissa was with me the whole way, even the morning of the surgery," she told 11Alive's Jaye Watson. "I was very nervous, and when I laid there I thought, if these little kids can endure what they endure, I can go through a few days of discomfort. I can do this.”
A year and a half later, thanks to Rader's donation, Brody is well. “He is considered cured, so he is 95 percent donor cells. So we now match in DNA and his blood type changed to my blood type.”
Brody and his grateful parents came to Atlanta, to the College Football Hall of Fame, to meet their family’s hero.
Fighting back tears, Brody’s mom said, “We’re just blessed. We’re so blessed. It could have gone a completely different way. I don’t know where our life would be right now if Amy hadn’t registered that day.”
The two families meet. Hugs and tears and “thank you’s” fill the moment.
Melissa’s parents, Joey and Erika Depa came, too. “Having Melissa be a part of that story makes us feel her legacy lives on," Joey said. "It makes us feel like she’s watching over us today.”
For Crystal Thornburg, the Depa's lost daughter is why Brody can run and play again.
“It’s because of them and their precious daughter they were trying to save, that Brody was saved," she said. "It’s a lot to be thankful for.”
Stranger no more, they are a match made on earth, with help from heaven.
© 2017 WXIA-TV