Navy Pilot Meets Leukemia Patient He Saved

Oct. 17, 2007 – It might have taken over a year and 7,000 miles, but once Drew Weiland met John Hiltz, there were few dry eyes in the house.

The pair received a standing ovation from more than 450 attendees at Siteman Cancer Center’s 14th annual bone marrow transplant patient celebration on Oct. 12. The event reunites patients and their families with the physicians, nurses and staff who helped them through lifesaving transplants.

The audience at the Chase Park Plaza’s Khorassan Ballroom was moved by the surprise meeting of cancer survivor Weiland and Hiltz, the man who saved his life.

Hillsboro, Mo., native Weiland, 24, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in November 2005 and needed a lifesaving bone marrow transplant. When no one in his family proved a match for donation, Siteman coordinators searched the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) registry to find one.

Enter Lt. John “JT” Hiltz, a U.S. Navy pilot stationed with the VFA-154 Black Knights aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf. Hiltz, 27, is a native of northern Kentucky who spent the last few months flying combat missions in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom over Afghanistan and Iraq.

“When I was in college at Notre Dame, three of my friends died from leukemia, so I put myself on the registry to see if I could help someone else,” Hiltz says. “Then when I was commissioned as a naval officer, I was added to the C.W. Young National Bone Marrow Registry.”

That organization then contacted him in February 2006 to take some preliminary blood tests as a potential match for a patient.

“At the time, I was living in California learning how to fly the Super Hornet, and I was told that there was a less than 10 percent chance I would be selected,” Hiltz says. “I informed my chain of command, and they allowed me to take the tests, realizing there was no commitment and the odds were low.”

Low odds or not, Hiltz was a match for a patient. Hiltz donated despite the fact it postponed his training and Naval graduation.

"Postponing graduation wasn't much of a decision for me,” Hiltz says. “It was a really easy choice to make, and certainly the rewards have been great.”

That reward is Weiland’s victory over cancer. After receiving Hiltz’s stem cells at Siteman, Weiland ultimately won his battle, thanks to Hiltz’s donation. “I’m very grateful,” Weiland says. “I was 22 at the time, and you always think it can’t happen to you.”

After learning of Hiltz’s identity and background, coordinators in Siteman’s bone marrow transplant program planned a surprise meeting between Weiland and Hiltz at the annual patient celebration. While the two had talked by phone, they had never met in person. The Navy graciously let Hiltz take time off to fly to St. Louis, while Weiland’s family kept his appearance at the event a secret from Drew.

“He has no idea this is happening,” Drew’s father, Ray, said before the program began.

After Ray spoke to the audience about his son’s fight, John Dipersio, MD, PhD, Siteman deputy director, brought Drew and his family onstage for a surprise. Hidden from the crowd behind the stage’s curtain was Hiltz. After walking out to a standing ovation, Hiltz hugged a visibly surprised Drew before giving him a Black Knights coin he carried with him during combat missions to keep him in mind. “You were always with me, big guy,” Hiltz said.