Former Air Force mechanic overcomes AML

By Margaret Tucker

It’s alarming to face a diagnosis of cancer, much less a stem cell transplant. Jon Kelly Storto would know. In 2018, he underwent an allogeneic transplant at Siteman Cancer Center to treat an aggressive case of acute myeloid leukemia. He has a simple message for transplant patients like himself.

Kelly Storto“Don’t just lay down,” Storto said. “Every day, no matter how bad you feel, get up. Keep moving, keep pushing.”

Storto, who goes by his middle name, has always been one to push. A former Air Force mechanic, he started his own steel company in southern Illinois after leaving the service. He spends weekdays working hard at his construction sites, and weekends boating with his friends on Kentucky lake.

When he went to the doctor for a physical prior to his 50th birthday, he believed he was in perfect health. He was feeling great and keeping up with his active lifestyle. But things took an unsettling turn after the appointment: his blood work came back abnormal, and he was referred for a bone marrow biopsy. Shortly after completing the biopsy, he got a frightening phone call from his doctor.

“He said, I need you to go to Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. I want you to walk into the emergency room and tell them you have AML and need to be isolated,” Storto said.

Storto had never heard of AML, but he did exactly what his doctor told him. A family member drove him the two hours to St. Louis. He didn’t leave Barnes-Jewish Hospital for 32 days – a period of time that encompassed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his 50th birthday, which he celebrated as best he could with his family and the nurses on his floor.

The diagnosis was difficult for Storto, his wife, adult son, and his parents.

“It hit my family pretty hard, especially during the holidays,” Storto said.

But Storto’s Siteman care team had a plan in place to get him through. They started him on an intensive course of chemotherapy to bring his leukemia into remission, and then released him from the hospital for a time while they searched for a stem cell donor. Once they located a donor, they readmitted Storto for another course of chemotherapy and then the transplant itself.

Storto never wavered in his decision to undergo his transplant at Siteman, even after friends and acquaintances suggested that he pursue treatment at centers in other areas of the US.

“I researched a little, and said, nope, I’m where I need to be,” Storto said.

The transplant was physically taxing. Storto lost a lot of weight and struggled with cramps, but he was determined to recover quickly so he could get back to his family, his company, and his boat. With his characteristic drive, he regained his strength by pushing himself a little more each day.

Today, several years after the transplant, Storto is cancer-free and back to the life he loves. He follows up with Peter Westervelt, MD, PhD, his Washington University medical oncologist, every three months.

Storto is grateful for the excellent care he received from his physicians and nurses at Siteman, especially Dr. Westervelt and his nurse practitioner, Kelly Thomas.

“Barnes-Jewish, wow, what a fantastic job they did,” Storto said. “Everyone on the floor was just fantastic. I know there’s other good hospitals, but Barnes-Jewish was a life-saver.”