"We are lucky to be alive," Brody Smith, who just passed his 5 1/2-year bone marrow transplant anniversary, tells PEOPLE.

By Cathy Free
Updated April 12, 2016 03:30 PM
Credit: Lindsay Wilkinson Photography

In the one-stoplight rural town of Pewamo, Michigan (population 475), four 7-year-olds have formed an unusual bond that will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives.

What are the odds, their first-grade teacher at Saint Joseph School wonders, that one-third of her 13 students fought incredible obstacles to live and thrive before they all ended up in the same classroom?

“It really is a precious gift to witness each day when they walk into the classroom ready to learn and interact,” Connie Warcinsky, who has taught for 16 years at the Catholic school, tells PEOPLE. “They truly are ‘miracle children.’ ”

“The Miracle Class,” also known in Pewamo as “The Little Victors,” is comprised of three boys and one girl who all ended up at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital for serious life-threatening conditions as infants and toddlers, sometimes unknowingly at the same time.

Thomas Kramer had his first of three open-heart surgeries when he was three days old, followed by neurosurgery for hydrocephalus (excess brain fluid), four months later.

Kaine Simon needed major brain surgery when he was five months old because the bones in his skull had fused shut, preventing brain growth, and Brody Smith’s battle against leukemia began at the same time he was learning to talk.

Then there’s Madeline George, who needed a heart transplant a few days after her first birthday.

“I’m not sure Madeline understands how miraculous she and her classmates really are,” the girl’s mother, Kara George, who has three other daughters, tells PEOPLE. “Thinking about all these kids have gone through is hard to fathom. When I see them all together, it warms my heart. After this, they’ll be friends forever.”

The youngest of five children born to Michael Kramer, a rural mail carrier, and Leah Kramer, a substitute teacher, Thomas was born with heart defects so severe, doctors didn’t expect him to live through having an MRI. His blood couldn’t carry enough oxygen and his aorta wasn’t large enough to pump blood through his body.

“They told us there were only four other documented cases like his,” Leah tells PEOPLE. “He’s the only survivor. Today, we’re still told that Thomas shouldn’t have been born alive or lived through all of his surgeries and complications. But miracles are everywhere. We just need to look around and see the miracles that happen every day.”

Brent and Emily Simon were preparing to take their first baby, Kaine, home from the hospital when doctors told them that something was wrong with his skull and there wasn’t room for his brain to grow. Five months later, surgeons cut Kaine’s scalp from ear to ear, separated the bones in his skull and inserted sutures that would dissolve over time as his bones grew back together.

“It was overwhelming to have our first child needing major surgery so early in life,” Emily, 31, who works at a dairy farm with her husband and now has three other children, tells PEOPLE.

After Kaine started first grade with the other “miracle” students, Emily was astounded to learn that she had passed Thomas’ parents in the hallway at the hospital after their son was airlifted there for open-heart surgery.

“We know that our kids have a lifetime of friendship ahead of them,” she says. “All of them are a great reminder every day of how precious life is.”

The third member of the “Miracle Class,” Brody Smith, was two years old when he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant to save his life. Complications from the surgery led to a dire diagnosis of liver scarring and a 44-day hospital stay.

“We braced for the worst,” Brody’s dad, Corey Smith, 41, a pipe fitter, tells PEOPLE. “Doctors tried many experimental maneuvers to save him in the ICU.” Finally, a month-and-a-half later, he and his wife, Robin, say they witnessed a “miracle” as their son began to respond to treatment.

“Brody is the first pediatric bone marrow transplant patient at Mott to survive this rare liver scarring,” Corey tells PEOPLE. “He’s now been cancer-free for about six years. It’s an obvious miracle.”

Kara George, who works as a nurse, knew that something was wrong with her firstborn daughter, Madeline, when the infant suddenly lost an interest in drinking from a bottle at 6 months and started vomiting. Her and her husband Andy’s fears were confirmed when a trip to the emergency room revealed that Madeline’s heart wasn’t pumping blood properly. The only cure was a heart transplant.

“The average wait for a new heart is six months,” Kara tells PEOPLE. “Doctors told us to prepare that if she didn’t receive her heart within this time frame, she might not make it. I remember holding her so tight and crying, thinking, ‘How can this be real?’ I’ve never felt so devastated in my life.”

Two-and-a-half months later, two days after Madeline’s first birthday, the Georges received the phone call they’d been waiting for. A donor heart was available.

Need a little inspiration? Click here to subscribe to the Daily Smile Newsletter for uplifting, feel-good stories that brighten up your inbox.

“There are so many emotions involved in thinking that someone else’s child had to die in order for yours to live,” says Kara, who wrote a letter to the donor family, but hasn’t heard back. “The magnitude of this is unexplainable. Without their gift, Madeline would not be here today.”

Although Madeline will one day need another heart transplant, right now she is healthy and adventurous, just like her other miracle classmates, Kara tells PEOPLE.

“They’re all such amazing, resilient children,” she says. “Madeline considers all of these boys her friends. But she’s shy when I talk about it.” She pauses, laughing. “Mostly because they are boys.”

At least one of the Saint Joseph first-graders isn’t shy about expressing how it feels to be a “miracle kid.”

“We are lucky to be alive,” Brody Smith, who just passed his 5 1/2-year bone marrow transplant anniversary, tells PEOPLE. “Thank you to all of the people who prayed for us.”