One day of Laura Pacheco's time gave a 3-year-old stranger a lifetime.
The toddler, Mario Lopez, had spent most of his life in a hospital, suffering from a blood disorder. Now, with the help of Pacheco's donated bone marrow, he's getting better each day.
Mario and his family flew on an airplane for the first time last weekend to be introduced to Pacheco at a Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation event in Boca Raton. Though scared to fly, Mario's mother said it was worth it to finally meet her son's donor.
"Words cannot express how grateful we are," said Mario's mother, Rebecca Hubbird, of Milwaukee, Wis. "She gave us a lifetime with him, and he probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for her."
Dr. Bruce Lenes, medical director for Gift of Life, the foundation that coordinated the transplant, said finding a match like that of Pacheco and Lopez's "is like winning the lotto." In fact, he said, the chances are roughly one in 9 million.
"There are very, very few things you can do in your lifetime to directly save a human being's life," Lenes said. "This is an extraordinarily special opportunity."
It was on a whim, said Pacheco, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, that she decided to let a Gift of Life volunteer swab her cheek to see if she was a match for a patient in need of a bone marrow transplant.
The Union College student had forgotten about registering as a donor until she received a call about a year later from the foundation saying they had found a match.
"It was one of those things everyone was doing," Pacheco, 22, said of getting tested. "It's pretty rare that they find a match, so I never thought something would come of it. I'm very glad it did."
Pacheco underwent blood work and an extensive four-hour physical exam before doctors gave her the OK to donate. During the procedure, which is performed using an anesthetic, doctors used a large needle to extract bone marrow from Pacheco's hip bone.
"I wasn't concerned about how I was feeling," Pacheco said of the procedure. "I wanted everything to work out for the little boy."
At the time when Pacheco donated, she was on her school's field hockey and lacrosse teams, she held a leadership position in her sorority and she maintained a full course load. Just three weeks after the donation, Pacheco studied abroad in Bali, Indonesia.
"It didn't interrupt my life," she said. "If I could donate again tomorrow, I would."
Before falling ill, Mario was "a wild child," his mother said. Once her son started walking, she could barely keep up with her giggly boy.
"He's a crazy one," Hubbird said. "He likes to play."
Shortly after Mario turned 1 in July 2013, he stopped walking and developed tremors. In November of that year, his parents took him to the hospital. After undergoing tests, he was ultimately diagnosed with a blood disorder that can be fatal within months if left untreated.
Mario underwent chemotherapy, and as a result of one of the treatments his body went into shock. Doctors put Mario in an induced coma, and he required a ventilator to breathe.
"He was basically dying in our arms," his mother said.
About two weeks later, in October 2014, he received an infusion of Pacheco's blood-forming stem cells. The following January he came out of the coma. It was not until June 2015, however, that he was discharged from the hospital.
"When he first came home, he was scared to be around people," his mother said. "He was used to being in the hospital room."
Hubbird said her son has to relearn basic skills, such as how to walk and talk. Mario is getting stronger every day and recently learned to crawl again, she said.
"He's doing amazing," she said. "He has his personality."
Since donating, Pacheco has become a college campus ambassador for Gift of Life. She hosts drives and raises awareness for the cause.
A geology major, Pacheco will graduate from college in June. She said she has not decided what she will do next, but she hopes to continue working with Gift of Life.
"I'm passionate about that," Pacheco said of the foundation. "I realized what's important in life and what isn't."
Pacheco said seeing that Mario is physically healthy can put to rest all of the anxiety she's felt throughout the year about whether the transplant would work. She hopes this meeting will also open the door for building a relationship with him.
"My one day in a hospital as an outpatient has given him a lifetime," she said. "He can now do what 3-year-olds do."
People tell Pacheco she's a lifesaving hero, "but I don't ever think like that," she said. "To me, the little boy is my hero. He's just taught me to put life into perspective and makes me think differently than I have in the past."