Zelaya and Pierre: United for the first time

August 14

For most kids, the early years are ones of constant exploration and discovery. For Zelaya Guevara though, discovery meant potential danger. Battling leukemia since the age of two, Zelaya had spent much of her life confined within the white walls of a hospital, surrounded by the overpowering smell of disinfectants, constant beeping of machines, and the ever-present fear that things could somehow get worse. 

Unfortunately, no matter what the treatment plan, nothing seemed to be working and  Zelaya was not getting any better. 

Half way around the world, Pierre Berndt had been sitting at home watching TV when an ad came on for DKMS, describing the desperate need for potential bone marrow donors. As a paramedic in the German Army it only seemed natural to him to make himself available to help those in need. “Why wait until something goes wrong,” he though to himself. “I swab my cheek today and I’m ready to help, whenever I may be needed.” He registered online to be a donor that day knowing that, though he might never be called, if given the chance he wouldn’t hesitate to donate.

Little did Pierre know, Zelaya would need him very soon. Her doctors confirmed that her only chance at survival was through a bone marrow transplant.  However, they were concerned about the likelihood of finding a match because of her mixed ethnic background. 

“The doctors didn’t have much hope,” remembered Zelaya’s mom “but I couldn’t give up. I knew there had to be someone, somewhere who could help my little girl.” 

While Pierre was stationed at home between tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he received the call he had been waiting four years for: there was a young girl in America who needed his help. Would he be willing to donate to her? Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Of course!” And within a matter of weeks he had completed his donation and began the long wait to hear, hopefully, that all had gone well for the stranger who he was now uniquely connected to.

Zelaya
Little Zelaya making sketches on her hospital bed while being prepared to receive a lifesaving transplant in 2016.

Just 29 days after transplant, far ahead of schedule, Zelaya was able to return home. She was finally able to sleep in her room again, play with her sisters, and enjoy time with her family at home. Not one to focus on herself, she used her Make-A-Wish to bring smiles to people in Puerto Rico who were effected by Hurricane Maria, asking the organization to help her provide the kids with toys and families with fresh food and water.  Throughout her recovery though, she always thought about the man who had made it possible. 

When Pierre and Zelaya’s family were finally able to share contact information their first conversation seemed less like an introduction and more like a reunion with family. Still, though they continued to write and call, Zelaya had one selfish wish. She didn’t want to just send him a “good morning” message or say “I love you,” she wanted to show him how much he truly meant to her in the only way she thought best - she wanted to give him a hug.  

On August 6th, 2019 she finally got the opportunity to do just that. Zelaya was busy creating a masterpiece with her two sisters at her Cancer Fit art class when Pierre walked into the room, sat down across from her, and simply waved. At first, Zelaya said "hi," looking a bit confused as to who this new person in the class was. Then, recognition dawned on her face as she quickly looked to her mother and back at Pierre, her hand going up to her mouth. “Oh my god,” she gasped and ran around to the table, jumping into Pierre’s arms and embracing him in the tight hug she’d long dreamed of. Everyone in the class held back tears as they watched the interaction, but for Zelaya and Pierre, the moment seemed to be completely their own.

When they finally came back down to earth, Zelaya introduced a teary-eyed Pierre to her parents and two sisters.  Zelaya’s parents, who had been in on the surprise the whole time, told the girls that Pierre would be spending the next few days with them in California, much to their delight.  Though Pierre had only ever truly been a stranger, albeit a life-saving one, to the Guevara family, it was clear at this moment that he was much more. He was a part of the family.

“It’s my job to heal people,” explained Pierre. “If someone I help is out walking in the street two months later, it means I did a good job. Seeing Zelaya laughing and being a kid, I know I did the right thing. I gave her my marrow and in return, I get new relationships I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have three little American sisters now!”
Zelaya and Pierre
Zelaya and Pierre meeting for the first time left everyone in awe and tears of joy. The moment Pierre decided to swab and register to be a potential bone marrow donor led him and Zelaya to this precious moment where the two realized they have forged an unforgettable bond for life.