EAST TREMONT, The Bronx — When he was just a sixth grader, Johnathan Hulme had come remarkably close to death.
Now, thanks to a priceless donation from an FDNY firefighter, the boy has a positive diagnosis for a long life.
Johnathan, who's now in the eighth grade in his hometown of Elberton, Georgia, happens to be in New York on a school trip. The highlight for him and his family was not the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building; it was, of course, getting to meet face to face with the New York firefighter who saved his life.
Their encounter on Memorial Day Monday morning was a far cry from how Johnathan was in March of 2015.
"We noticed he was looking yellow," said his gifted and talented program teacher Angela Scoggins. She'd notified the boy's parents, who subsequently took him straight to the hospital.
It was a diagnosis of leukemia, a cancer that begins in the bone marrow and results in a high number of abnormal white blood cells. Johnathan quickly grew very ill, and had to give up the many activities in which he was involved, like fishing and football.
However, Johnathan had angel on Earth, about 880 miles north of the boy's eastern Georgia home, to be more precise.
"I can never thank him," said Allen Hulme, Johnathan's father, on Monday. "If it wasn't for what he did, Johnathan wouldn't be here."
Hulme was referring to Firefighter Matt McCutchan, of Ladder 58.
McCutchan is a probationary firefighter, but his 18 months of on-the-job training will be over next month, when he'll become a full-fledged member of the department. He's also a former NYPD officer and medic in the FDNY EMS corps.
McCutchan is as humble about his unusually service-oriented resume as he is about the selflessness of the bone marrow donation he made two years ago that allowed Johnathan's body to fully recover.
"Anybody else would've done what I did," McCutchan told PIX11 News. "I did the easy part."
But if it weren't for Firefighter McCutchan donating his marrow, his emotional encounter with the boy whose life he saved would not have happened Monday.
About 50 people who'd come with Johnathan on their school's New York trip clapped, yelled and whistled as he hugged McCutchan in front of the visitors' entrance of Yankee Stadium Monday morning.
They'd agreed to meet at the stadium, since it was the New York landmark that was closest to McCutchan's firehouse.
The two had been in contact via social media for over a year, but meeting in person was altogether different.
"It's just something I've been waiting on," Johnathan told PIX11 News. "I finally get to meet the person that helped me."
"It's great to meet him," said Allen Hulme, Johnathan's father, who's chronicled his son's journey from sickness to health on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnathansArmy/ .
"It's great to meet the person that saved my sons life," he added, his eyes welling up with tears.
The match is a rarity, considering a few different factors. First, out of every 430 or so people who register to be a marrow donor, only one meets the criteria that allows a donation. Second, finding a donor can take many, many months, if ever. In Johnathan's case, the match happened within six weeks.
"When they asked me to guess where the donor's from," said Scoggins, Johnathan's teacher, "I thought, 'Athens [Georgia], Atlanta, maybe?' Who knew New York?"
Now, one of New York's Bravest is appreciating that he and the boy whose life he helped to save can bond. "I'm looking forward to getting to know him and talking with him, to speak with him and Allen and everybody," McCutchan told PIX11 News.
He and his girlfriend had lunch with the Hulme Family and the rest of the tour group at the Hard Rock Cafe at Yankee Stadium, where the bond deepened further. Its strength was quite evident afterward, when McCutchan took the Hulmes to his firehouse.
Minutes after they'd arrived at the Engine 45/ Ladder 58 / Battalion 18 firehouse, there was a fire call, and all of the firefighters on duty politely, but swiftly, boarded their vehicles and were out responding.
McCutchan was off duty, so he let the boy whose life he saved, try on his life-saving bunker gear. "It was meant to be," McCutchan mused, as he and the boy's family admired the 5-foot-10 eighth grader in full gear.
"It's awesome to see a smile on his face and he's doing well," McCutchan said, smiling himself. "It's really cool."
"He's just like family," said Johnathan, about the firefighter whose marrow donation saved his life.
Families often say blood is thicker than water, and firefighters frequently call one another blood brothers. In the case of Firefighter Matt McCutchan and graduating eighth-grader Johnathan Hulme, both sayings apply.
Their story underscores the need for marrow donation, the sign-up for which takes about one minute, and the test for a match takes even less time -- it's a cotton swab on the cheek.
Donations are basically the same as a blood donation, and take the same amount of time. Anyone interested in becoming a marrow donor can sign up here https://bethematch.org .