Apollo teacher Leohr finds plenty to be grateful for following stem cell transplant and overcoming low survival odds

November 24, 2022 | 12:10 am

Updated November 23, 2022 | 11:03 pm

After battling cancer for more than 12 years, Apollo High School Engineering and Computer Science teacher Jon Leohr has plenty to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. The holiday marks day 56 since a stem cell transplant for Leohr, who received his transplant through the Be the Match National Marrow Donor Program. 

A man who once regarded himself as a very private person where his health was concerned, now finds himself becoming increasingly transparent about the highs and lows of his cancer journey in order to increase awareness in hopes of saving others’ lives.

“I’ve always been a pretty private guy when it comes to my health — that has been true for 12 years,” Leohr said. “Half of the time, when I was going through chemo, people didn’t know. This flip where I’ve become 100 percent transparent — it’s surprising to me how God is using it — it resonates with more people than I realize.”

Leohr, who was named 2021 DCPS Kids First High School Teacher of the Year, said he is continuously surprised by how many of his former students are reading and following his journey. He said that several students have reached out to let him know what a difference he has made in their lives. A few of those students are part of Apollo’s Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program. After a class discussion recognizing the significance of Leohr’s absence at the high school, students began researching the Be the Match program. The students soon found themselves inspired to host two Be the Match registry events of their own.

One event was held at Apollo in early November, while the second will be held on November 25 at the Western Kentucky Regional Blood Center located at 3015 Old Hartford Road. All proceeds from the Daviess County Public Schools drive will go directly to the Leohr family.

There will also be an opportunity to join the marrow registry through a simple, on-site cheek swab procedure. Those wanting to register for Be the Match must be between the ages of 18 and 40.

“I’d never even heard of Be the Match until now,” Leohr said. “It just blows me away that it is so easy and it makes such a difference to people that don’t even have a chance.”

After being diagnosed and treated for Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) and Peripheral T-cell lymphoma (PTCL), two rare forms of cancer that originate in the white blood cells, Leohr was informed this past April that a stem cell transplant would be his only hope for survival. 

“For 12 years I’ve been told by incredibly intelligent doctors that I didn’t have a chance to survive, that death was inevitable,” Leohr said. “It wasn’t a question of if, but when.” 

His answer to prayer came late this past spring when he was notified that he had three perfect stem cell matches. 

 “To find a perfect match, that in and of itself is miraculous,” Leohr said. “I’ve known friends that have had similar diagnoses and have died waiting for a perfect match.”

Due to unknown circumstances, two matches were removed from the registry, and the necessary blood work for a donor in Germany was delayed due to a FedEx strike. A week before Leohr was going to try to make a partial match work with his brother, Leohr was informed that the match in Germany was going to work out.

After making detailed arrangements for his parents to take over their home and the care of their children, Leohr and his wife Melissa made the difficult decision to be apart for the required 100+ days. Jon would live in a two-bedroom apartment in Nashville with his parents to be within 5 minutes of Vanderbilt, while his wife stayed home to maintain normalcy for their two sons.

When Jon’s mother, Janey, was asked how she felt about living with and caring for their adult son for four months, she said there was never a question.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Janey said. “Even though I have to watch him go through things I don’t want to watch him go through, if that’s what it takes to get to a cure, we’ll do it.”

Jon said throughout their 22 years of marriage, he and Melissa had never been apart for more than two weeks. He now counts the days until he can return home and return to teaching — crossing out each day on the calendar that hangs on the refrigerator. While the usual requirement is to stay for 100 days after transplant, Jon is acutely aware of where days 86 and 93 fall on the calendar. 

“Christmas Eve is Day 86 and Day 93 is New Year’s Eve,” Jon said, adding that there had been a recipient that had gone home on Day 93, but not as early as Day 86. “That’s completely unheard of. If I were to go home on Day 86, it could only be God.” 

Jon said, regardless of which day he is allowed to go home, he has an awful lot to be thankful for.

“I’m thankful that I’m able to do this healthwise and that my job has allowed me to do this,” Jon said. “I’m thankful that I live so close to Nashville, and Vanderbilt. I’m thankful that I continue to persevere, I continue to survive, not only that, I thrive. How blessed am I?”

While Melissa admits to the difficulty of being separated from her husband for so long, she is beyond grateful for the extended life he has been given.

“I cannot put into words how grateful I am that Jon has been given a second chance at life through this stem cell transplant,” Melissa said. “This would never have been possible without the selflessness of his donor. If only people knew how easy it is to literally save someone’s life. We are so fortunate.”

Jon said he is currently on his fourth round of radiation and is taking 40 different maintenance medications. Despite everything he has been through, he said he still views his cancer as a blessing.

“I am incredibly stubborn and fiercely independent,” Jon said. “Having cancer has done two things, it has made me more dependent on God and it has made me appreciate things so much more.”

November 24, 2022 | 12:10 am

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