When 3-year-old Mario Lopez met the Union College student who saved his life, he connected with her instantly.
Mario’s mother, Rebecca Hubbird, said if it wasn’t for Laura Pacheco’s bone marrow donation, her son wouldn’t be alive today.
Mario met Pacheco, 22, on Sunday in Boca Raton, Florida, at a Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation event. “It was an amazing experience,” Hubbird said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
“I had been wanting to meet her for so long since they found out she was a perfect match for him,” she said as Mario mumbled excitedly in the background. “Words can never describe how grateful we are. My son wouldn’t be here without that transplant.”
The trip from Hubbird’s home in Milwaukee was the first time Mario, and Hubbird herself, traveled by plane. Hubbird said it was “scary” but meeting Pacheco was “amazing.”
“He responded to her right away,” she said. “It was very emotional. At first they didn’t think he would be able to move around anymore. They told us he might be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. But then he started crawling. That’s all because of Laura.”
Pacheco, a senior geology major at Union, said she had her cheek swabbed during a donor drive at Union in April 2013 and didn’t get a call from the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation until July 2014 that she was a potential match for Mario.
She then had blood work done, which confirmed she was a 100 percent match for Mario, who was then 2 years old. The chance for a perfect match was roughly one in 9 million, according to the foundation.
After an extensive physical, Pacheco had bone marrow harvested from her hip bone in October 2014. She was back in school at Union in Schenectady the next day.
“I consider myself extremely lucky to have been a match for him,” said Pacheco, who is from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. “It’s like winning the lottery. I’m happy I had this opportunity and experience. To me, Mario is my hero.”
Mario has a genetic disorder called familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, which is when the immune system produces too many activated immune cells, causing damage to the liver and spleen and enlargement of the organs.
The disorder also destroys blood-producing cells in the bone marrow, causing easy bruising and abnormal bleeding. The brain may also be affected.
The disorder is fatal within months if left untreated.
Hubbird said Mario was born with the disorder because he has a gene abnormality that both she and Mario’s father, Mario Sr., have — a 1-in-4 chance of happening. Mario started showing symptoms after his first birthday, she said.
“At first they thought it was an autoimmune disorder,” she said. “It progressed rapidly after his first birthday. He stopped walking and talking and developed tremors. When he would be upset or really excited, he would start shaking.”
Hubbird said they were in and out of the hospital for almost a year until the doctors decided to do genome sequencing and discovered the disorder.
She said before the transplant Mario was put into a medically induced coma after reacting badly to a round of chemotherapy.
“They didn’t think he would make it through the night,” she said. “They did the transplant while he was in the coma. He was in the coma until the end of December 2014. Now he is doing amazing. But it is going to be a long process.”
Hubbird said Mario lost a portion of the mass in his cerebellum and that it’s unclear what the long-term effects will be. She said she is optimistic Mario will regain all of his functions.
“Right now he understands everything we say to him,” she said. “He isn’t talking, but he understands little conversations. He is getting a lot of strength back in his legs. He just started school a month and a half ago. He also goes for speech therapy and physical therapy.”
Hubbird said she is looking to bring Mario to Pacheco’s graduation at Union in June.
“We have been emailing each other all [Tuesday] night,” Hubbird said of Pacheco. “I gave her my number. We want to keep in touch.”
Pacheco said she isn’t sure what she is going to do after graduation, but she knows she wants to continue being involved in the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.
She is currently a campus ambassador for the foundation at Union. Pacheco also plays field hockey and lacrosse at the college.
Gift of Life, located in Boca Raton, Florida, is one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries working to help children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.
Pacheco said she is grateful to be a part of Mario’s life and feels like part of the family. Mario has two sisters — Mireina, 7, and Ma’Linde, 1.
“It’s still really hard to put into words,” Pacheco said. “Not everybody has the chance to save someone’s life.”
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.