In August of 2013, 8-year-old Cami Carver’s life depended on a stranger.
The young girl was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 4 years old. After aggressive treatments, followed by a brief remission period, Cami’s leukemia returned. Doctors determined a bone marrow transplant would be her best hope for beating the disease.
Unfortunately, testing confirmed that no one in her family had the 10/10 DNA marker match required of a suitable donor.
“When we found out her little brother, Caden, wasn t a possible donor, we were really sad. It was heartbreaking because when a sibling matches it’s easier for the patient to go through the bone marrow process, they don t get as sick,” Cami’s mom, Chelsea Carver, tells PEOPLE.
“Then the doctors came to us and said they had more bad news – there’s only one perfect match for her in the registry of 11 million people.”
That match was Joe Tolin, a 26-year-old restaurant manager from Beaumont, Texas. Tolin had joined the national bone marrow donor registry six months earlier through Be The Match when the organization held a registration drive at the deli where he worked.
“The Be The Match registry came and set up a little table,” Tolin tells PEOPLE. “They were there to answer any questions, all that we needed to do was fill out our full information and get our cheeks swabbed, and they took it from there.”
Tolin and his wife were completely devoted to caring for their one-week-old son when he got the call letting him know he was a potential match for a little girl with leukemia. A blood test confirmed that Tolin was indeed Cami’s perfect match – and her only hope.
“I didn t have any sort of doubt [about donating] or anything like that,” Tolin says. “I think that we all – my wife, myself, and my son if I’m sure he could have understood – all agree on the same point that what was happening was far bigger than us and really, really important.”
The new father traveled to Houston where he underwent surgery to harvest the bone marrow that was then flown to Salt Lake City, Utah, to save the young girl’s life.
“At the time, it was pretty much anonymous, I knew there was a girl in the United States that had leukemia,” Tolin says. “There were a lot of questions going through my head: Who is this girl? How is she doing? Am I ever going to get to meet her?”
Both donor and recipient remain anonymous until one year after their procedures, at which point each side is given the option to consent to releasing personal information. As Joe and Cami were both so curious about their incredible connection, the two families exchanged letters and drawings through the organization well before the one-year mark.
“All we knew about him was that he was a 26-year-old male,” Chelsea says. “We didn t know where he was from or anything, but he actually sent us a letter.”
“He sent a letter with [the bone marrow], it just said how grateful he was for this opportunity, and it was the sweetest thing. For somebody to be thinking about sending a letter when they’re going in for surgery, that’s just really cool.”
Two years later, Tolin and his family traveled to Salt Lake City to meet Cami, who is now cancer-free. Cami and her entire family came to the airport to meet Tolin, his wife and two children.
“Cami shouted and threw her sign up and busted through the ropes and she came and gave me a big hug,” Tolin says. “It was really special. I can’t really describe it, but it was the greatest feeling in the world.”
“It was really awesome when he showed up,” Cami tells PEOPLE. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you saved my life.’ There’s no way to repay him.”
The two families spent a long weekend together enjoying the sites of Salt Lake City and found an immediate connection.
“It was like we rediscovered family that we hadn t seen in a really long time,” Tolin says.
In Tolin, Cami says she feels like she’s found an older brother. “He was really nice and really funny and he was almost exactly like me,” she tells PEOPLE.
In Cami, Tolin says he’s found a hero. “Heroic is the best way I can describe her,” Tolin tells PEOPLE. “She’s hopeful, she cares more about others than she does herself, she fights, she doesn t give up and it’s just amazing to think that a 9-year-old girl has that kind of strength.”
“She’s my hero, and so to be able to help her in the fight is the greatest thing I could ever do,” he adds.
To learn more about the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, visit Be the Match to find a registry drive or order a kit to register at home.