HOULTON, Wis. – Michelle Hayes walks nervously up the sidewalk of the well-kept home.
For months she’d been planning for this moment. Still, what to say to the man on the other side of the front door – the stranger who saved her life?
“Yeah, I’m nervous,” Michelle had said in the car. “I’m just excited to meet him, you know, I don’t know how I’ll react.”
Two years earlier Michelle couldn’t have imagined this day. The kindergarten teacher from Baytown, Texas had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia.
“They didn't think she was going to make it,” says Steve Hayes, a truck driver whose face still reveals his concern for his wife of 27 years. “First thing you think of, my wife's gonna die.”
Michelle desperately needed a bone marrow transplant, but no one in her family provided the necessary match.
About that time a phone rang in the suburban Twin Cities home of Peter Favilla.
“I received a phone call from the Indiana blood center,” Peter says. “And I had no idea why they were calling me.”
Peter didn't recall signing up in grad school to be a potential donor on the national bone marrow registry. “And I said, I did?”
Twenty years had passed since he’d pledged to help if the call ever came. “No recollection, not at all,” said Peter of the promise he’d made in school, but later forgot.
Now he was being told a 47-year-old cancer patient needed a bone marrow donor – and he was a perfect match.
“I just knew her age, and that was it - and that it was a female,” Peter says.
Actually, Peter knew one thing more: what he had to do - after sharing the story of the mystery woman with his teenage daughter Alex. “And she said, ‘It's not like it's a choice, of course you're going to do it.’”
August, two years ago, Peter checked into the Mayo Clinic. While he was sedated, surgeons removed with needles, from Peter’s pelvis, more than one-and-a-half liters of bone marrow.
Peter’s marrow was flown to Houston and funneled by an IV tube in Michelle’s blood stream.
“Within 24 hours or so, it was part of Michelle,” Peter says.
Meantime, in Bayport, Minnesota the entire congregation at Peter's church started praying.
“There was a person out there who had now received Peter's bone marrow who needed our prayers,’ said Rev. Linda Tossey, the pastor at People’s Congregational Church.
For months they prayed, “Even though they didn't know her,” Peter says.
And now, a cancer survivor has traveled a thousand miles with her husband in their Honda Accord to complete her journey. “Because I want to the meet the person who gave me my life,” Michelle says.
“I feel lucky to have had the chance,” Peter counters, shortly before Michelle and Steve turn into his driveway.
The front door swings open. Peter and Michelle embrace on the porch - crying, laughing and not letting go.
“What you see is an angel,” says Steve, watching from the base of the porch, “and then another angel, that's the daughter.”
Now tears are streaming down Alex’s cheeks too. “I couldn't imagine someone saying no,” she says as Peter wipes away his daughter’s tears.
“The goodness in people, just the goodness,” says Steve.
But Michelle has another visit planned – to People’s Congregational.
At the start of Sunday services, Michelle and Peter sit side-by-side singing the opening hymn.
“Let us get a glimpse of what selfless love looks like,” Pastor Tossey tells her congregation.
She brings both Peter, Michelle and Steve to the front of the church as the congregation applauds.
“You never know how long you're going to have on this world,” Michelle tells the gathering, “but it's restored my faith in people.”
Downstairs, in the church basement, a representative of Be the Match signs up new potential marrow donors.
“That's awesome, that is awesome,” says Michelle, watching a few feet away with Peter at her side.
They are wearing matching T-shirts, a gift from Michelle. The back of Peter’s reads “Donor.” The back of Michelle’s reads “Recipient.”
The T-shirts speak the truth: we don’t have to start out friends, to have each other’s backs.
Note: For information on becoming a potential bone marrow donor through the organization Be The Match click here. People wishing to sign up as potential donors on Peter Favilla's behalf can do so by clicking here.