SALT LAKE CITY — Though he's scheduled to be the closing act behind Bon Jovi at a celebrity gala in New York later this week, David Jolley's biggest thrill in the Big Apple will be meeting the woman whose bone marrow donation has kept him alive.
"I have a gift for her and I'm looking forward to it, but I'm a little anxious about it," he said Tuesday. "It's the person that saved my life. How do you even thank someone for doing something like that?"
Jolley is scheduled to meet his donor, Stefanie Kienstra, on Thursday as both prepare to participate in a major fundraising event that evening. After a performance by Jon Bon Jovi, they'll briefly share their story as advocates for donation through DKMS, the world's largest bone marrow donation center.
The organization, which has more than 2 million registered donors, facilitated Jolley's transplant in conjunction with the National Donor Program and LDS Hospital, and is the impetus behind his New York trip. He celebrated his two-year anniversary as a bone marrow recipient last month and will be preparing for the bar exam in June once he returns home.
A native of West Valley City, Jolley graduated from Skyline High School, then went on to the University of Utah, where he received an undergraduate degree in sociology and political science, and a master's in public administration.
Though he had planned on a career in federal law enforcement, he switched plans after interviewing with police agencies that didn't like his reticence to use deadly force, he said.
Law school seemed more appealing at that point, so he enrolled at Gonzaga University and was working on his second year of study when he and his wife came home to Utah for Thanksgiving in 2007.
As the couple prepared to return to school, family members finally talked him into a visit to the emergency room at St. Mark's Hospital because he had a lingering illness that wasn't responding to treatment. A doctor told him he had acute myelocytic leukemia. "He said it was very critical and I needed to be rushed to LDS Hospital right away."
Jolley was hospitalized until the day before Christmas, receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Doctors told him the disease is so aggressive, he would likely die without a bone marrow transplant, so a nationwide search was initiated.
One donor, a man about his age, was identified as a good match, but he decided against it at the last minute, leaving Jolley wondering what his chances would be. Through DKMS, doctors found Kienstra, and after further testing, she used her spring break from school at the University of Missouri to undergo the surgery — the first she had ever experienced.
She had registered as a donor during her school's homecoming blood drive a few months earlier. The 22-year-old journalism student said her mother had recently been through cancer treatment, and she simply wanted to help someone if she could.
"Going into it, all I knew was that it was a male somewhere in the world that needed my bone marrow." Donors and recipients are bound by contract not to contact each other for at least a year after transplant.
Because he continues to take medication and visit the bone marrow unit for follow-up, Jolley asked officials at LDS Hospital how he could contact his donor once the contract period had expired. They provided her e-mail and he contact her, but Thursday's meeting will be their first communication face to face.
"I think it's going to be incredible," she said. "I don't know if I'd be able to see him otherwise because we live so far away." She's looking forward to standing with Jolley on stage to provide "a true life story of what bone marrow donation can do. Maybe it will bring a face and a name to a story people may only hear about."
Dr. Finn Petersen, transplant program director at LDS Hospital, said doctors perform 60 to 70 bone marrow transplants annually. The treatment is reserved for those whose chance of survival is less than 50 percent with chemotherapy alone and is done ideally when the patient is in first remission.
At that point, the cure rate is 60 percent to 70 percent, he said. "Without it (transplant), the chance is no greater than 10 (percent) to 20 percent," which was the case with Jolley. "A molecular study showed he had a very bad mutation in the leukemia cells."
Though he struggled as his body tried to reject the new bone marrow, medications have helped his body make the adjustment, and Peterson said Jolley should be able to live medication-free in a couple of years. "His chances of living a normal life span now are 60 (percent) to 70 percent."
The experience has changed Jolley's life and outlook, he said. "It puts your priorities in order and you learn not to sweat the small stuff."