As a New York City firefighter, Officer James Wildes is no stranger to saving lives.
“It’s expected,” he said. “That’s your job, to help people.”
But what was perhaps his greatest save yet occurred off the job. Alise Marie Rose Williams was just two months old when doctors diagnosed her with a rare, deadly genetic disorder called Fanconi Anemia; she would eventually need a bone marrow transplant to survive.
When Alise was 3, Wildes donated the bone marrow that would save her life.
Now three years later, the girl met the man who gave her a second chance at life. Alise, along with her mother, Debra, father Troy, and older brother CJ, traveled from their home in Evanstown, Iowa, to meet Wildes and his family at the “Honor Roll of Life” ceremony, sponsored by the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).
Wildes began his service to New York City as a police officer. But in 2002, he transferred to the FDNY, which had lost 341 firefighters on 9/11. Later that year, he joined the Be The Match Registry, a partnership between the FDNY and the New York Blood Center.
In September 2008, Wildes got a call that he was a match for Alise. He donated his marrow the following February in New York, and it was transported to the University of Minnesota, where Elise was undergoing treatment.
“Who would ever guess that a New York firefighter would match to an Iowa girl?” asked Debra Williams, still amazed by the turn of events.
Although Alise remains anemic, her parents say that she is doing “wonderfully” and was excited to meet Wilde. His donation prevented the heart failure and cancer generally associated with the disease.
The donor registry requires recipients to wait for at least a year to learn the identity of donors, and may only do so if the donors wish to be known. Wildes decided to reveal himself to the Williams family’ and they began swapping photos.
The three-year anniversary of the Alise’s transplant is coming up next month, and the meeting today was full of laughter, hugs and tears.
“To meet her, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world…that you were matched to someone, that you actually helped save someone, it’s unbelievable,” Wilde said. He compared being able to donate his marrow to hitting the jackpot.
To get chosen; it’s like hitting the lottery,” he said.
For the Williams family, Wildes’ sacrifice serves as a reminder of what could have been, and gives them new-found hope for the future. ”I’ve seen my little girl die twice,” Troy Williams said, unable to hold back his sobs. “If it wasn’t for this man right here she wouldn’t be here today.”
Little Alise was uncharacteristically quiet through the emotional ceremony. After seeing her father cry, a single tear of her own fell down her face before she buried her face in her mother’s chest.
“It means a lot, means that she’s with us, that I get to hold her everyday, watch her go to sleep, all things that a mother should get to do,” Debra Williams said.
The two families arrived at today’s ceremony bearing gifts. For Alise, Wildes brought a navy blue teddy bear with the FDNY seal emblazoned on its belly. The Williams family brought a key chain for Wildes. At its end hung a tiny red firefighter hat and a small, sparkling set of angel wings.
As she presented the gift, Mrs. Williams’ face flushed with emotion. “You’re our angel,” she said.