Katie Donovan first saw a photo of Dalton Prager posted on Facebook from his hospital bed. The date was August 1, 2009. “I’ll never forget it,” she tells PEOPLE.
Both had been born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease leading to thick buildup of mucus in the lungs and other organs that restricts and worsens the ability to breathe over time. Patients have a current average life expectancy of 40 years. Dalton was then 17. Katie was 18.
“Hey, I see you’re in the hospital if you ever need somebody to talk to,” Katie wrote to him.
Dalton’s response: “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
She explained the connection. Dalton’s mom was a pediatric nurse in St. Louis, Missouri, and knew someone who knew Katie, nearly 400 miles away in small-town Ewing, Kentucky. Katie had spotted Dalton’s picture on his mother’s Facebook site. “I know how it is to be in the hospital by yourself, and I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t lonely,” Katie, now 26, says.
They started messaging, first about the disease, then about everything, and never stopped. Like the star-crossed young cancer patients in the best-selling novel and 2014 film The Fault in Our Stars, each found a sympathetic ear, and an instant understanding, that swiftly evolved into something deeper.
“Let’s just say that after three days of talking to Dalton on the phone,” Katie says, “I called my mom and told her that I knew who I was going to marry.”
Dalton knew it, too.
“He was like a new person,” his mom, Renee, tells PEOPLE. “Before, he just saw ‘my life is going to end,’ and he just knew that. But all of a sudden he wanted to do things, he wanted to go places. He could see things that he never saw before. He saw a future. He saw happiness.”
When they vowed to meet in person, it was against the advice of doctors, who say that due to risk of infections, cystic fibrosis patients should steer clear of each other. Dalton’s mom was fearful; she flat-out opposed the meeting. But Dalton was insistent. “I’m going to Kentucky to meet her with or without you,” he told her. She backed off and made the trip with him.
In Kentucky, Dalton parked his mom at their bed-and-breakfast, then walked to the Dairy Queen, where Katie was waiting for him.
The teenagers already had talked about the risks. “I knew that there was a possibility that we would get sicker and something could happen,” Katie says. “I just told Dalton I’d rather have somebody that I was totally in love with for five years, than be either lonely or not as happy with somebody for 20 years.”
Neither had been sickly as kids. Although they would adjust to IV’s and feeding tubes and breathing treatments as a way of life, the disease didn’t define them. Katie was an elementary school cheerleader, ran high school cross country, played on softball and volleyball teams. Dalton wrestled competitively, binding his tubes to his body and tucking them under his singlet. Each worked teenage jobs.
Was the disease scary during those years? “It could be at times,” Katie says. “But I knew that God has control of the situation, so it wasn’t bad.”
Five months after reaching out, Katie left Kentucky in January 2010 to settle into an apartment with Dalton outside of St. Louis. A month later, on a trip to St. Thomas with his grandparents, Dalton fell to one knee at the edge of the crystalline blue water and proposed.
Katie cried. “I was just so happy,” she says.
They married on July 16, 2011, under an outdoor gazebo in Kentucky, with Katie in a sequined, strapless wedding dress. A bridesmaid walked their cockapoo Marley, a rescue dog, down the aisle. (They later expanded their family with a German shepherd, Bo, another rescue.) For their first dance, they chose the Bryan Adams song “Heaven.”
“She looked like an angel,” says Katie’s father, John Donovan, 58, a railroad engineer. “I wanted to see them grow old together. I knew it wasn’t going to happen, but that’s what I wanted to see.”
They were a well-matched couple: Dalton, a graduate of culinary school, liked to cook, and Katie, who otherwise favored Taco Bell, liked to eat. “We weren’t really that sick, so we were able to do whatever we wanted,” Katie says. “It was fun.”
At his lowest moments, prior to Katie, Dalton had been so wracked by breathing struggles that he had vowed to shut the door on extended care and surgeries that didn’t guarantee success; at age 11, he’d even drafted a will, promising his collection of Yugioh cards to his best friend. Making things worse was the bacterial infection burkholderia cepacia, which had taken hold in Dalton before his teen years and never let go.
Soon that infection transferred to Katie. “I didn’t know how serious it was,” she says, “until it pretty much took over my whole life.”
By late 2012 and early 2013, “we started getting sicker,” Katie says. “It was just very miserable.”
The couple had relocated to Kentucky, and with their forward-focus on each other, embraced the idea of lung transplants. “We wanted to keep living, we wanted to keep traveling, we wanted to just keep being the married couple that we always wanted,” Katie says. Dalton told his mom: “We want more time together, even if it’s a short amount of time.”
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center performed the surgery. Both entered the hospital in August 2014; told he wouldn’t live to see Christmas if he didn’t get new lungs before Thanksgiving, Dalton received his transplant that November. Due to insurance complications, Katie did not receive her lungs until seven months later, in July 2015.
Only after Dalton’s surgery did Katie’s mom, Debra Donovan, learn that Katie had taken her own name off the transplant list to ensure Dalton got his lungs first.
With her husband in recovery, “I took her to the doors of the I.C.U to look in on him,” Donovan recalls. “That’s all she wanted – to be able to look in for herself to see that he was okay.”
But he never was, not fully. By the time of Katie’s transplant, Dalton was back with his family in St. Louis, where his health struggles would continue as he developed lymphoma. Back home in Kentucky, Katie also found herself in and out of the hospital again under her own family’s watch. The two were incapable of caring for each other.
Through texts, phone calls and Skype conversations, the couple did their best to keep in touch. “They were complete soul mates, and he couldn’t imagine life without her,” says Dalton’s mom.
On their fifth anniversary last July, Dalton traveled to see Katie – for only a few minutes – in her hospital room. He was ill himself back in St. Louis when Katie decided in early September that she’d had enough of hospitals and wanted to finish her days on her own terms at home under hospice care. Her doctors have told her they don’t expect she’ll live into the new year.
“How am I supposed to watch my wife die?” Dalton asked his mom. “How am I supposed to see her in a casket? I’m supposed to go first.” Renee Prager told her son: “You are the one that has to be strong; you have to be strong for her. Maybe this is the reason you have not died all these other times.”
Still, Renee Prager packed up her car, started the engine, and prepared to take Dalton on one more long drive to see his bride, if only briefly. He was too weak to get in the car. That afternoon he was in an ambulance with pneumonia and back in the hospital yet again. The families secured a donated medical transport to relocate Dalton closer to Katie, if only he could rebound to make the trip.
On Facebook, Katie posted news of her calls to his nurse. “They will be starting breathing trials in the morning,” she wrote September 11. “He is on a very small dose of blood pressure medicine and she said he should be off of that very soon. He is still stable. God is great!” On September 12: “He did a breathing trial earlier this morning and did wonderful! They will be doing that again this afternoon. They are expecting to be able to transfer him most likely tomorrow which is amazing!” They looked forward to seeing each other.
Believing that her own days were growing short, Katie accelerated her bucket list. Last Saturday her family planned “Christmas” at her aunt’s house.
That afternoon came word that Dalton had died. He was 25.
“My angel, my best friend, the love of my life, my husband went to be with the Lord our God today,” Katie wrote on Facebook, where she and Dalton had found each other. “Dalton fought a long hard battle with cystic fibrosis. He was a courageous fighter and ‘give up’ wasn’t in his vocabulary. Thank you for all of your love, prayers and kind words that you have shown to us over the past few years. God bless each of you. – Katie.”
Two days earlier, Katie considered her own life, and whether she ever worried that love and marriage might never come her way in the time she was given.
“Those thoughts go through everybody’s head that has CF,” she said, “but I didn’t let that take over my mind. I knew that I was going to be fine and that I could do this – I could live and do whatever I want.”
“I believe that God does everything for a reason,” she said. “He is the master. He has a plan for all of us, and if this is my plan, then I’m ready and I’m not afraid, and I’m going to just keep going until I can’t go any more.”
She went forward with Dalton as long as their time allowed. “We told each other we loved each other the first day we met in person. We just knew,” she says. “He understood everything about me. He knew what I was going through, and he was just my other half. And I knew it.”