Joined by generosity - Four year old a flowergirl for woman who saved her life
At weddings there is often a lot of talk about hearts coming together.
But for Staci (Wiltgen) Hassman, of Le Mars, her big day also involved kidneys.
Three years ago, Wiltgen donated one of her kidneys to a 15-month-old baby girl she'd never met before.
On Saturday, that 4 year old from North Carolina walked down the aisle as one of Staci's flowergirls.
"It feels kind of surreal. It's amazing to see her and how well she's doing," Staci said. "It was a lot for them to come, and it makes this all even more special."
Raegan Lombardi flew into Iowa with her mom Layne Taylor and grandma Sue Taylor to be present when Staci married Paul Hassman, of Le Mars.
Layne said she knew right away they had to make the trip.
"Staci said, 'I'm getting married,' so that was that. There was no question we'd come," Layne said. "The idea of Raegan being a flower girl was just the icing on the cake."
Before the wedding, Staci hadn't seen Raegan and Layne for 2 1/2 years.
"We do talk and stay in contact, and I've seen pictures," Staci said.
When they reunited at Staci's house the day before the wedding, it only took Raegan a few minutes to approach Staci and start playing hand-clapping games with her, giggling with delight.
Staci first got to know about Raegan and her plight in 2008 when she was visiting www.CaringBridge.org, a website that helps loved ones stay connected during critical illnesses.
Raegan was born on Jan. 29, 2007, and because of birth complications, she went for 10 minutes without oxygen.
Doctors first diagnosed her as completely blind and deaf in one ear, but she recovered from that. Still, her kidneys never recovered.
Raegan spent her first 15 months of life in hospitals, first in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Duke then at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital, where she was on dialysis five days a week.
She underwent more than a dozen surgeries.
And she needed a kidney.
None of her family members turned out to be donor matches, and they sent out a plea via the Internet for anyone who might be a match.
When Staci read that message, she decided almost immediately to donate a kidney if she was a match. She was.
Within a few weeks, Staci met Raegan and Layne at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital.
"From day one, it felt like we were all family," Staci said.
The surgery went fine, and Raegan is now a playful 4-year-old, walking, talking and starting school.
"She loves books, and it's all about Elmo," Layne laughed. "And anything outside. She loves to be outside on walks or in the swings."
Raegan has even been practicing saying Staci's name, Layne said.
"She's become quite the social butterfly," she added. "We had to throw kisses to everyone on the airplane."
Without Staci's kidney, doctors said none of this would be possible.
"She wasn't even supposed to live past her first week," Raegan's grandmother Sue said. "It's a miracle."
Layne and Raegan live in Raleigh, N.C., so they can be close to Duke University's medical center, where Raegan receives all her medical care.
Raegan has had her fair share of illnesses, as can be expected with the immunosuppressive drugs Raegan is on to prevent the rejection of the transplanted kidney.
As for what Raegan's future will hold, her family is letting her decide the pace.
"We'll let her show us," Layne said. "She certainly has done well so far."
At the wedding, Raegan joined Staci and Paul's own five children -- ages 4-17 -- in the wedding party.
"The kids all know about Raegan," Staci said. "They've been completely excited to meet her."
Staci's 11-year-old daughter was even sending text messages to Layne saying how excited she was to meet them, she added.
At the wedding, it seemed like Raegan and the couple's children were all siblings, Staci said.
"They all clicked very well," she said. "It was just very emotional to actually see them all together and have photos of my kids with her."
And as for Staci's husband Paul, he has only the highest words for Staci's decision to donate her kidney to Raegan.
Staci said she is doing just fine with one kidney, and she's registered on the bone marrow transplant list if anyone needs it.
"It's just the kind of person she is," Paul said. "She's always giving, giving, giving."
So when Paul and Staci exchanged their vows Saturday, Raegan was there, tossing flower petals and posing for pictures, a living testament to Staci's generosity.
By chance, the wedding date fell on the exact three-year anniversary of the kidney donation.
"We were just happy to have them here," Staci said. "I'm so happy."