All the feels. Leeanne Hester Mako‘s wedding day was especially meaningful — because she finally met the man who saved her life.
In an exclusive interview with The Knot, the bride shares how she came to meet her bone marrow donor, an Israeli soldier named Jeka, who was a guest at her wedding last month. Leeanne was 24 years old at the time of Jeka’s bone marrow donation, and received the life-saving transplant after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She had no idea who her donor was and only knew that he was also in his early twenties, he lived in Israel, and luckily, had the exact same blood type as the bride — an anomaly in the medical world.
According to bone marrow donor and recipient regulations, Jeka and Leeanne were unable to exchange any contact information for a whole year after the procedure. But Leeanne wanted to know the identity of the stranger who saved her life.
“When I had my one year follow up at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute transplant center I asked for the consent form I needed to sign to release my identifying information to my donor, and for me to receive his,” she recalls. Three months later, Leeanne received a letter from the cancer center, which she said she assumed was just a medical bill.
“To my delight, it was two sheets of paper,” she recalls. “One from the OSUCCC – James stating my donor’s information was enclosed and one from Ezer Mizion, the organization through which he [Jeka] became registered and donated marrow.”
The mystery was solved, and now, Leeanne wanted to thank him in person. “Meeting someone who is a complete stranger, yet with whom I share a such a unique and special connection is a very surreal experience,” she tells The Knot. “It’s a lot of thoughts and emotions – curiosity — What does he look like? Do we share any quirks?– and overwhelming gratitude.”
She slowly learned Jeka’s story. “His family immigrated to Israel in the early ‘90s when he was one year old. His father is Russian and his mother is from Kazakhstan,” Leeanne shares. “He has been in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for the last four years.” When Jeka was enlisted in the IDF, it was mandatory to have his blood drawn, but the cheek swab to become a possible bone marrow donor was an optional procedure that “came about through a partnership between the IDF and Ezer Mizion,” Leeanne adds. Therefore, it was Jeka’s choice.
During that time, Jeka — a military helicopter mechanic — was still saving lives. His force went on “life-saving rescue missions for soldiers or civilians who have been severely injured and are in need of immediate medical assistance in hard-to-reach locations,” Leeanne shares. “It was a shock to him when he was told he had a perfect match because he knew it was very rare, but he believes that all life is sacred and worth saving,” she adds. “He said he always hears stories about the missions from those on the [helicopter] squadron, but had never himself saved a life. He wanted a story of his own, one where he was the life-saver.”
Leeanne, 26, and her husband Jimmy, 30, met at Wittenberg University’s athletic training facility during her last semester of her undergrad at Wittenberg University and his last semester of his Doctorate of Physical Therapy program at University of Dayton. The two fell in love and on December 7, 2014, Jimmy proposed to Leeanne in front of the Buckingham Fountain near Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois.
Leeanne tells The Knot how she reacted upon meeting her bone marrow donor. “I think I shocked him with a huge hug, and my first words were ‘thank you,’” she recalls. She adds that her husband, Jimmy, “isn’t a man of many words,” but he was overwhelmed with gratitude when he met the soldier who saved his future wife’s life. “He shook Jeka’s hand and told him thank you when he first picked him up at the airport.”
“I’d say one of the most memorable parts about meeting him was just the time we got to spend together the few days before the wedding. We got the chance to get to know each other, about each other’s families and our cultures,” Leeanne tells The Knot. “One quirk I found we do share is our mutual dislike for mushrooms,” she said, “and we each go by our middle names, not our given names.”
Jeka attended Leeanne’s wedding to Jimmy Mako as a truly one-of-a-kind wedding guest. “One memory from the wedding I will always hold onto is him telling me at the reception how happy he was to be a part of our day and how happy it made him to see me walk down the aisle. I also [got] him onto the dance floor for one dance and we shared some laughs,” Leanne says. “Having [Jeka] at the wedding made such a special day and time in our lives even more special,” she continues. “The day not only marked our marriage, but also a future with hopes of health and happiness, which was made possible by Jeka’s donation.”
She concludes: “I’m thankful for the hope of a future. A future to do life with Jimmy by my side.” It’s an option she may not have had if it wasn’t for the soldier who gave her a fresh new beginning.