Darian Craig was just 3 years old when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that affects mostly infants.
She was given less than a 15 percent chance of surviving.
Darian eventually beat the disease, but spent the next 14 years of her life in and out of emergency rooms battling Behcet’s syndrome, a rare disorder that causes blood vessels to become inflamed, and receiving radiation treatments, chemotherapy and undergoing a bone marrow transplant.
“I couldn’t really do much,” says Darian, 19, of Nashville. “I couldn’t go out. I had to always stay with my mom. It wasn’t a normal childhood.”
Just when she thought she was cancer free, she was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a rare blood and bone marrow failure disorder, in September 2011.
But with the help of Delete Blood Cancer doctors found a match in donor Evander Holyfield Jr., 29, son of the heavyweight boxing champion who shares his name. And if it weren’t for his unlikely donation, Craig likely wouldn’t be here today.
“I was trying to impress a girl at the time, so I ended up attending this donor event, not even thinking I could save a life,” says Holyfield of attending a bone marrow drive in New York City in January 2011. “But when I got the swab, I got this feeling that I would be a match.”
Eleven months later, Darian received the critical bone marrow transplant. Holyfield and Darian met for the first time on May 1, at the Delete Blood Cancer’s seventh annual gala in New York City (see video of their emotional meeting below).
“It’s just amazing to me that I can live again,” a tearful Darian told PEOPLE backstage at the event. “I have one more chance at living – to actually be able to do something.”
Darian’s mother is just as grateful.
“I didn’t know who he was,” says Tina Craig, 43, a patient relations administrator. “It didn’t matter to me if he was tall short, white or black – he’s my daughter’s angel. For whatever reason he did it, he saved her life.”
Having a racially mismatched donor recipient pair is rare but it does happen, says Dr. Gail J. Roboz, director of the Leukemia Program at NY-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who treated Robin Roberts.
“It just goes to show that absolutely everybody should really consider participating as a donor,” says Dr. Roboz (who did not treat Darian). “It certainly crosses race, gender, culture all possible lines of whose life you can end up saving.”
As for Holyfield, he says he feels incredibly grateful he took a chance – and saved a life. He and the Delete Blood Cancer organization hope that his story will inspire others to donate bone marrow in the hopes that they, too, can give someone a second chance.
“You have to be courageous enough to go through the process,” he says. “I had to get out of looking at myself and focus on that person. I had to have faith to know that I can help someone and save a life. I thank God I made the right decision.”
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