DALLAS — It's odd to call what's happening in a Dallas hotel a "reunion," because most of the people involved have never met.
"I stumbled across this group on Facebook, and they saved my life," said Vicki Wilson of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Wilson and the four women with her are strangers, but they feel a lot more like sisters.
"No one walked this road and knew the fears and questions we would have but these women," said Lisa Stallings of Oklahoma City.
Stallings and Wilson, along with Sheli Godland of Euless and Brooke Slick of New Enterprise, Pennsylvania came from across the country to meet in Dallas.
Kristy Cruise came all the way from Australia.
"We're united forever, and that's why it's a really emotional thing," she said.
They all have multiple sclerosis, and can all share horror stories of what life used to be like.
"In April 2012, I was on duty patrolling, and had an attack that left me paralyzed on my right side," said Godland, a Euless police officer. "At that point, I thought my future was over. I thought I'd never be able to do what I love — be a police officer."
She had to quit her job.
Wilson and Stallings have a rare form of MS called primary-progressive multiple sclerosis. "I was told by the Mayo Clinic, basically, 'Good luck with that, there's nothing we can do for you; you're just gonna be slowly paralyzed and bed-bound.' And that wasn't acceptable to me," Wilson said.
They felt like they didn't have hope, and "life without hope was hell," Cruise said.
The women connected on blogs and Facebook, and discovered they were all determined to find a cure.
They found a bit of hope in a courageous woman named Amy who was the first American to travel to Russia for an experimental therapy called hematopoietic stem cell therapy. It's not FDA-approved for use on MS patients in the United States, but it is used for cancer patients.
Each woman raised $40,000 and flew to Moscow for five weeks of HSCT, which is intense. It can be painful and risky.
They endured shots that stimulated bone marrow to produce stem cells. There were side effects, "but it's all a very small price to pay," Stallings said.
"Your destiny was the hands of the MS," Slick added.
They endured their stem cells being withdrawn, then they went through high dose chemotherapy to kill their immune systems.
They were all in Russia at different times, yet they stayed connected.
"You're in the hospital, you wake up and you have a text message from someone in the group saying, 'Hey how are you feeling today? I know what's happening next, it's OK, it's not going to be that bad," Wilson said. "It's just amazing the bond we have. I mean, even though this is the first time I've ever met Brooke, we have talked hundreds of times."
HSCT worked for all of them.
"I had for about three to four years been using a trekking pole to walk; not in my home, but out in public and up and down steps I had to have it," Slick said. "I haven't touched that trekking pole since last June! My future is now mine."
"We can do whatever we want now!" Cruise gushed, making the whole group giggle. At 36, she is the youngest of the group.
"Our futures were terrifying," Cruise said. "MS is way more frightening than this treatment. When establishment doctors say this is too risky and you shouldn't be doing this, they're not living with the fear of MS in their lives. They don't understand what we're willing to do to get rid of MS."
"You didn't have a future," Godland added. "You possibly had one ending up in a care home or in a bed with your children taking care of you. We didn't want that."
The women have all kissed wheelchairs and canes goodbye, and are now walking without aid. They came to Dallas to meet and to celebrate their shared journey, which is a shared victory, too.
"This treatment gave me hope," Godland said. "I'm going back to work this year!"
They are staying at the trendy NYLO hotel in the Cedars neighborhood. And at the rooftop bar, overlooking the skyline, they popped a bottle of champagne, held up their glasses, and toasted, "to friends forever."