COLUMBIA — The day after her 20th birthday, Stefanie Kienstra gave a life-saving gift to a stranger.
On Thursday in New York City, she will see him for the first time.
Kienstra, now 22, donated bone marrow to David Jolley two years ago when she was a sophomore at MU and he was a 32-year-old leukemia patient in Salt Lake City.
Neither knew much about transplants before random circumstances brought them together.
She happened to attend a blood drive on campus in October 2007 and joined a donor registry. Jolley learned a month later that he had leukemia.
When his doctors began looking for a bone marrow donor, they first tried his brother and then looked elsewhere. When they couldn't find a donor, Jolley's only chance at recovery became Kienstra, who happened to be a perfect match.
"It really is surreal how everything lined up for us," said Jolley, who has been cancer-free since then.
Kienstra and Jolley will be brought together Thursday to share their success story with an organization called DKMS, a national bone marrow donor center founded in Germany and now based in New York.
The organization is holding its 4th Annual Linked Against Leukemia Gala on Thursday night in New York City. Several celebrities will be in attendance, including Halle Barry, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. There will also be a performance by Jon Bon Jovi. The event is featuring the first-time meeting between Kienstra and Jolley.
Two years ago, however, the donor and the patient were unaware that one would need the other.
Kienstra, a journalism and psychology student, was on campus in the fall of 2007 at the annual Homecoming Blood Drive. As she was leaving, she was approached by a volunteer with DKMS, and she agreed to have her cheek swabbed for placement on a donor registry.
About a month later, Jolley was visiting family in Salt Lake City on Thanksgiving break from Gonzaga Law School in Spokane, Wash. When he complained of feeling ill, his family encouraged him to see a doctor.
Jolley expected a routine diagnosis, perhaps the flu. Instead, his doctor told him he had leukemia and would need to begin chemotherapy and radiation.
"They told me I needed a transplant immediately," Jolley said. "Otherwise, I was probably going to die."
A bone marrow transplant can help a leukemia patient in two ways: Cancer treatments often kill many of the patient's blood cells, and a transplant can replace them. Afterward, the implanted bone marrow has the ability to produce new, noncancerous cells, ideally helping the patient recover.
To minimize the risk of the patient's own blood cells attacking the donated bone marrow, patient and donor must have stem cells that match closely for the surgery to be a success.
Doctors often first look to close relatives of patients, especially siblings, to find a match. Still, only 25 to 35 percent of patients have siblings who can donate marrow.
Kienstra was contacted over Christmas break and told her blood stem cells matched Jolley's. Arrangements were made for her to donate bone marrow during spring break in March.
A week before the scheduled procedure, though, she learned that Jolley needed the transplant within a week.
Kienstra quickly rescheduled her midterm exams and went to St. Louis on March 19, her birthday, to undergo the surgery. Because Jolley’s situation was so urgent, bone marrow had to be taken directly from her pelvic bone.
There are two ways to donate bone marrow: The first is peripheral blood stem cell collection. Blood is collected through the donor's arm and the stem cells are separated out.
The second is extraction, where bone marrow is collected through a special syringe placed in the back of the donor's pelvic bone, a surgical procedure.
Despite undergoing that procedure, Kienstra said her sympathy has always been with Jolley.
"He was confined to a hospital bed and not able to spend time with his family and loved ones," she said. "That is much more painful than me having surgery."
At the time, Kienstra knew only that the patient was male. Because of privacy concerns, donors and recipients are not permitted to contact each other until a year after the procedure.
A year passed, and Jolley began to initiate contact through e-mail. He was recovering well and said he wanted to learn more about Kienstra because "she literally saved my life."
Since receiving the transplant, he has had few complications. He has blood drawn every month so doctors can see if he is still cancer-free. This past March, he hit the two-year mark, an important milestone for recovering patients.
Kienstra said knowing she has helped Jolley recover makes her smile, and she encourages others to sign up for donor registries.
"It is exciting to have the opportunity to save someone's life," she said.