Hayley Milks was in a Miami hospital room, high on morphine and down one kidney, when she met her future husband.
He sat by her bedside and thanked her. Her organ donation had just saved his brother’s life.
Hayley didn’t know they would bond over being single parents — her raising four girls, him the father of three — or their messy divorces. She had no idea they would move to Valrico in a few years or open a shop together in Plant City.
That her act of selflessness was about to be rewarded in a big way.
David needs a kidney
Let’s start this medical meet-cute at the beginning.
In early January 2019, Hayley was recovering from leaving a toxic marriage while running a yoga studio in Miami.
“It was not all oms and meditation,” said Hayley, now 41.
She was scrolling Instagram one night when she came across a post shared by a friend.
“‘I’ve had enough,’” the post started.
“David is my fiancé. He received a kidney and pancreas transplant in 2012 due to damage caused by his type 1 diabetes. However, three years ago, his body began to reject his new kidney. Since then, he’s been receiving dialysis three days a week, each time feeling weaker and more affected ... If ANYONE is willing to be a live donor, please message me.”
David Montoto had Type O-positive blood. So did Hayley. She reached out to learn more that night.
David and his fiancée, Melissa, took her to dinner. They brought a Tiffany necklace with a kidney bean on it, along with a note thanking her for even considering the operation. Hayley didn’t hesitate after she met them. She took a test to see if her kidney was eligible for donation.
David and Hayley were a 98.8% genetic match.
Her parents were confused. They didn’t understand why, when Hayley had four children, she didn’t save her kidneys in case something happened to one of them. But Hayley had a different blood type from her kids.
“I told my parents, ‘Part of the way that you guys raised me was if you have something and you’re not using it, then you should share,’” she said. “And my dad was like, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t mean organs.’”
Hayley sold her yoga studio in May 2019 and started to prepare for the donation. She gave 70 vials of blood for tests, got iron infusions three times a week for her anemia, took a psych exam and underwent numerous scans. By July, it was time for surgery.
“The person that donates always has a harder recovery because they’re taking a perfectly healthy person and cutting them open,” Hayley said. “So my recovery was worse than any childbirth ... and I’ve had four kids!”
The next day, David’s brother walked into her room.
“Like a fairy tale”
William Montoto is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, with a thick beard and a sweet smile. In the haze of her recovery, it was his height that Hayley noticed first.
She tried to stand and greet him, forgetting that she’d just had a major surgery. He rushed to her bed and shook her hand.
William sat down and started talking. They connected over raising kids and being divorced and loving musicians like Gregory Alan Isakov.
“It’s like the cogs of a watch,” said William, now 40. “They’re just automatically moving together and fitting perfectly, and you don’t know how it started or when it began.”
Two hours passed.
“It’s funny because you watch these movies and it’s like, love at first sight and everything. Sound fades away behind you and all of that stuff. It sounds like a fairy tale thing, but for me, that’s exactly what it was,” William said. “I didn’t even remember that my sister was sitting right next to me for that time. And she tried to nudge me with her elbow, like, ‘Hey, are you gonna go see your brother?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what I came here for.’”
Finally, William went to check on his brother. David could tell something was up.
“He was like, ‘Oh, man, that girl Hayley is really nice,’” he said. “But it wasn’t like, ‘really nice to donate a kidney.’ It more like like, ‘She’s very attractive.’”
The whole time the brothers were together, William was thinking of reasons to justify visiting Hayley again.
She was on the same page.
“I told my nurse, ‘Get me out of this bed, get me showered,’” she said. “If this guy comes back, I want to look decent.”
She had makeup on by the time William popped his head back into the room.
“Hey, do you know if they validate parking?” he asked.
“How the f--k should I know?” she said. “I just gave up this kidney.”
They talked for another 1½ hours, until Hayley’s dad and two of her daughters came by.
“If it were up to me, I would have never left her hospital room,” William said. “Ever since that day, I’ve never wanted to be apart from her.”
Partners in love and business
William messaged Hayley on Instagram a few days later. He cracked a joke about soup — a callback to their first conversation — and offered to buy school supplies for her girls.
“I was not expecting that at all,” Hayley said. “I was just like, ‘Well, now I have this big extended family.’ I was so grateful for that because I only have my parents and, of course, my kids. ... I said to him, ‘Oh, this is so cool. Because now I feel like I have all these brothers and a new sister.’”
He messaged back: “I hope you don’t look at me as a brother.”
David was delighted when he heard Hayley and William had started dating.
“Someone who does that is very selfless and must have a kind heart,” he said. “You don’t just do that if you don’t have a bunch of kind qualities.”
But David did warn his brother:
“No matter what happens with you guys, Hayley’s always going to be in my life,” he said. “She did something for me that nobody else would do. And I’m going to be eternally grateful for as long as I’m here.”
When coronavirus came to Florida, William lost his job as a banquet manager for The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. He got a job with UPS, and then FedEx recruited him in 2021. He had to move to the Tampa Bay area.
Hayley followed as soon as her girls were done with the school year and started making jewelry in Valrico that summer. She began selling it at local markets under the name BeadnikRow.
“I cannot even write my name straight. Cannot draw. I hate cooking and baking,” she said. “But for whatever reason, jewelry comes naturally for me.”
Through vending Tampa Bay Markets events and Shopapalooza, she made enough money to give her kids horseback riding lessons and take them on vacations.
“Without those events, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” William said.
William quit his job. Inspired by Hayley’s success, he started a smoothie and all-natural beverage company, CocoMo’s. At the end of 2023, the two opened their own brick-and-mortar shop in Plant City. Called CocoRow, it combines her one-of-a-kind pieces and his fresh fruit drinks.
The couple got engaged in Key West in 2022 and were married at a courthouse the following spring. They’ll finally have a wedding celebration this summer with their families. Between seven kids and their businesses, life has been busy.
But their favorite moments together are the simple ones.
“We’ll walk to the restaurant, talking about random things,” William said. “We’ll laugh about something that the kids did or will lay in bed watching a show. ... We can be in the same room together and not say a single word and completely be happy because we are together.”
As Hayley puts it:
“My life completely changed just because I decided to donate a kidney.”
How to shop: To find Hayley Milks’ handmade jewelry, follow BeadnikRow at instagram.com/beadnikrow. To find William Montoto’s all-natural smoothies and fresh fruit creations, follow CocoMo’s at instagram.com/_cocomos_. Both businesses appear at local markets and events throughout the year.
Hayley and William’s new brick-and-mortar store CocoRow, which features both jewelry and drinks, is located at 103 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Plant City. It is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Follow facebook.com/CocoRowPC and instagram.com/cocorowpc.
How to be a donor: More than 90,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney donation, according to the National Kidney Registry. To learn more about becoming a live kidney donor and other ways to help, visit kidneyregistry.org.