updated 03/05/2014 AT 2:30 PM ET
•originally published 03/05/2014 AT 7:30 AM ET
Every day, Shelley Cumley looks forward to the email she receives from Godvine, a Christian website, which is filled with videos of inspirational real people stories.
Sometimes she watches them. Sometimes she doesn’t. Last October, though, one caught her eye.
It was the story of Nicole Farley, now 26, who’d been paralyzed as an infant when a drunk driver plowed into her mother’s car in March 1988.
Cumley had been the good Samaritan who pulled the baby from the wreckage.
“I absolutely couldn’t believe it,” Cumley, 51, of Snohomish, Wash., tells PEOPLE, her voice shaking. “This was a little girl I’d worried about and prayed for.”
She watched the video until the end.
“It was the most incredible, beautiful story,” she says, “about a girl who is not bitter; had not let her disability hold her back. She’s persevered, lived life to the fullest.”
The Day of the Accident
That day had haunted Cumley for years. She was on her way to Lake Tahoe with a friend when she came upon the accident on Interstate 5 near Redding, Calif. Nicole’s mother, Roanna, was pinned inside.
“I went to her door to see if I could open it but I couldn’t,” she says. “Her steering wheel was up by her face.”
Suddenly, she heard a baby crying.
“I looked in the back and saw this infant in a carseat,” he says. “The car was so completely demolished that we thought the thing was going to blow up any second.”
Cumley quickly lifted Nicole from her carseat and held her while Roanna drifted in and out of consciousness, screaming for her daughter.
“I held Nicole to her window – her window was broken out – and I said, ‘Open your eyes and look at your baby,’ ” Cumley says. “ ‘She’s fine.’ ”
She kept doing this until help arrived.
“She’d open her eyes and see Nicole and it would calm her down and she’d lose consciousness,” says Cumley. “Then she’d wake up and start screaming for her again like she forgot this happened.”
Cumley rode in the ambulance with Nicole and waited while the doctors checked her out.
“They said she was fine,” she says.
Cumley reluctantly headed back to her weekend away in Lake Tahoe but unable to get thoughts of the baby and her mother out of her head, she cut the trip short so she could stop by the hospital on her way home and check on them.
The nurses told her that Roanna was in critical condition but recovering, while Nicole was paralyzed from the armpits down.
“I just really almost fell down,” she says, breaking into tears at the memory. “I was so devastated. I said, ‘When I left here two or three days ago they said she was fine.’ The nurse said, ‘Yeah, they discovered her feet weren’t moving and did some further testing, and she’s paralyzed,” she says.
Cumley started crying.
“I thought by removing her from her carseat I made her injuries worse,” she says. “We headed back to Seattle that day and I could hardly function for a few days.”
Cumley called Roanna a few months later to check on them but didn’t have the heart to ask her if she’d caused her daughter’s paralysis.
How They Found Each Other
“I am tearful as I write this for so many reasons,” Cumley wrote. “I have struggled over the years second-guessing myself and wondering if by pulling you out of the car, I made your injuries worse. It has haunted me.”
Nicole froze when she read it.
“I almost dropped the phone,” Nicole, who runs a daycare in her Yuba City, Calif., home, tells PEOPLE. “I burst into tears. Not because I was sad, but it was this burst of emotion. I was excited. I was overwhelmed.”
Her reply lifted a heavy burden from Cumley. Nicole told her that the doctors said her injuries happened on impact.
“I have cried more in the last three months than I’ve cried in my whole life,” Cumley says. “It has been a huge season of healing for me.”
The two have become fast friends, and last month they met for the first time as adults. “It was very effortless,” says Nicole of their first meeting. “I think it’s because we have this special connection because of that day, even though I was an infant. I feel like I’ve always known her.”
Cumley says she simply feels at peace for the first time in 26 years.
“I feel like my faith is stronger than ever,” says Cumley, “because you hear about miracles, but when it happens to you, it’s life changing.”