All weddings hold special meaning for the newlyweds. But for Sarah Aiken, her wedding meant finally meeting Kinley Strohl, a 14-year-old cancer survivor whose life she saved by donating her bone marrow seven years earlier.
When it was time to plan the guest list for her wedding, Ms. Aiken didn’t hesitate to add the Strohl family. “We wanted to include them in everything,” Ms. Aiken said. “They were strangers but they were part of my family, an extension of myself. I needed to meet them and have them be a part of my family on the biggest day of my life.”
On Aug. 9, the night before her wedding, Ms. Aiken was standing at the back of the restaurant where she was having her rehearsal dinner when the Strohl family walked in.
“When I saw her holding my ribbon bouquet we both started crying,” Ms. Aiken said. “I ran over and hugged her. It was the most amazing moment of my life.”
“It felt surreal because I’d never heard her voice,” she added, “but it was like we were communicating telepathically. I was told it was so rare to be a match, and that the process had so many risks and there isn’t always a success story. She could have died, and yet here she was alive and thriving.”
Ms. Strohl had flown in with her parents and older brother from Delaware, Ohio, for the wedding at Celebrations at the Bay in Pasadena, Md. “We were crying when she hugged me,” Ms. Strohl said. “It was like we’d met before. I have a bond with her no one else has.”
In 2009, Ms. Aiken, now 31, was a senior studying nursing at the University of Pittsburgh. When she heard about a bone marrow drive on campus with DKMS, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to ending blood cancers and finding donors, Ms. Aiken volunteered to help run the drive and registered to be a donor.
“It takes only 30 seconds to swab your cheek,” said Ms. Aiken, a nurse practitioner who lives with her husband, Robert Russel, 30, a marketing manager, in Alexandria, Va. “Knowing I’d be taking care of people with cancer, and seeing strangers signing up to help save people’s lives, made me want to do the same.”
A year and half went by before Ms. Aiken received an email from DKMS informing her that she was a potential match to help a 6 year old with lymphoblastic leukemia-hypodiploid, a rare form of blood cancer.
“All I knew was that she lived in the United States and that no one in her family was a match,” Ms. Aiken said. “I wanted to know more, but recipients stay anonymous until after they’ve received your donation and are doing well.”
On Jan. 19, 2011, Ms. Aiken underwent the bone marrow procedure. Five months later she received another email — this time it was from Michelle Strohl, the child’s mother. “She sent a photo of her daughter, Kinley, and told me about the moment she was diagnosed and everything she had to fight for, and how well she was doing. And thanked me.”
Over the next several years, emails, holiday cards, and small trinkets were sent back and forth between the two. There were occasional Facebook and Instagram check-ins, but the two never spoke on the phone or met in person.
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During the wedding reception, another unexpected moment came when the bride’s father, Wayne Aiken, delivered his speech before 165 guests.
“He shared the whole story about me and Kinley,” said Ms. Aiken, who met her husband in 2014 while playing in a coed softball league. “There were people in the room who didn’t know I’d been a donor. To hear my father talk about what I’d done, and to see the Strohl’s stand up when he introduced them was very emotional.”
Ms. Strohl was touched by Mr. Aiken’s words as well.
“Sarah saved my life,” she said. “I feel special and honored to have received her bone marrow, especially when there are kids still fighting for their lives. She’s a loving, caring person and is like an older sister.”
Ms. Aiken also felt that special connection.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Things are meant to be and people are meant to meet. And our families are meant to be intertwined.”
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