Because of the pandemic, hugs of gratitude weren't possible but the celebration still took place for thousands of bone marrow transplant patients and their donors.
DUARTE, Calif. (KABC) -- What do you say to someone who saved your life?
Cancer patients at the City of Hope got the opportunity to meet for the first time and also thank the people who selflessly donated their live-saving bone marrow; a virtual salute to the 16,000 bone marrow transplant patients.
Oncologist-Hematologist Dr. Stephen Forman opened the celebration. He said, "I'd like to welcome all of you to the 44th BMT annual celebration of life."
Because of the pandemic, hugs of gratitude weren't possible. But when 8-year-old Joseph Montanez of Bakersfield and his parents met the woman who saved his life online, tears of joy still flowed.
"I really want to give you a hug," said Ashley Montanez, Joseph's mom.
Vanessa Flores, 43, lives in New Mexico. Joseph received her stem cells after he endured five months in the hospital battling acute myeloid leukemia.
"I really want to tell Joseph that he's the hero here. He's the one who's gone through it all," Flores said.
After two rounds of chemotherapy, Joseph had lost his hair and weighed as little as 44 lbs.
Montanez said, "For a while there, he got really, really sick."
Without a sibling as a potential match, Joseph's parents started reaching out to extended family. But like an answer to a prayer, a complete stranger turned out to be his perfect match.
"She was a 12 out of 12 from what doctors told me. She was a perfect match," Montanez said.
Following the transplant, she said her son's straight hair grew back curly.
Flores, who appeared to have straight hair, said, "This is a really good straightener that I have. But my hair is really curly."
Doctors told Montanez that recipients can acquire some of their donor's traits.
Joseph told Flores, "Thank you for giving me the good blood."
This annual reunion reminds us of the importance of becoming a donor. Flores registered 19 years ago.
Flores said, "I really had you in my prayers.
"Thank you," Montanez replied, "I had no idea that it was that long ago that you registered."
Joseph joins City of Hope's growing transplant family. But his immediate family got larger too. Joseph's new favorite toy is the stuffed Godzilla Flores sent him for his birthday.
Montanez said, "I send my love to her from my family to hers and we can't wait to spend time together and our future together."