When Jonathan Kreifels, in January 2014, found himself among the small group of approximately 200 Americans aged 2 through 20 diagnosed annually with Ewing’s sarcoma — a rare form of cancer affecting the bones and surrounding soft tissue — he might reasonably have succumbed to self-pity.
He was 19 years old and three semesters into a business degree at Creighton. Athletically active, a sports and soccer enthusiast, and making great strides toward graduating from his older brother’s alma mater, he had nonetheless been troubled for about nine months by a swelling left thigh.
It was an annoyance at first, graduating eventually to a nuisance, and soon thereafter to a painful and debilitating problem that made it hard to walk or sleep.
The doctors he consulted all diagnosed a torn quadricep, one of a group of thigh muscles that enables athletes to run, jump, squat and do all those things that athleticism requires. He was advised to decrease his physical activity and rest his quad muscles. Meanwhile, the tumor grew.
For 18 months after his tumor was discovered by his childhood pediatrician during a trip home to El Dorado Hills, Calif., Kreifels would endure 20 rounds of chemotherapy, months of exhaustion he can compare only to running a daily marathon, and removal and replacement of his hip, knee and femur.
Now 22 years old, he walks with a cane, which is about the only evidence of the trauma that visited him three years ago.
He is cheerful, even ebullient, fully engaged in student life at Creighton, doggedly and busily serving a demanding internship at Union Pacific, and “honored and humbled” to have received both the Edward C. Creighton Business Social Responsibility Endowed Scholarship and a general university academic scholarship.
“Your gift takes on a special meaning to me as I remember the medical bills and the prices of treatment,” he wrote to the scholarship committee. “Thank you deeply for your commitment to me, and know that I’ll continue to pay it forward during my treasured time at Creighton and beyond.”
The past three years have been full of struggle, he said, and it means much that friends, family and his academic community have stood with him.
“It is especially gratifying to know that my hard work and dedication have been noticed by others, and their praise of my actions leaves me proud and determined to continue what I’ve already begun,” Kreifels wrote.
His “actions” would have been hard to miss, even if his dramatic and successful battle against cancer (he is halfway through the standard five-year period of watchfulness) had never occurred.
He was a Beadle his sophomore year, and will be a Decurion this year, in both roles helping acclimate new students to life at Creighton.
He has participated in four service and justice trips with Creighton’s Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (he served as a leader for a trip to Memphis, Tenn., in March); has been a guest speaker the past three years for the University’s Relay for Life event, which supports the American Cancer Society; and, despite being robbed of his full athletic ability by his surgery, has served as a referee and scorekeeper in intramural soccer, basketball and volleyball.
He helped found JayClean, an on-campus dry-cleaning business, and served as a DJ on Creighton’s BluJ radio network.
Beyond Creighton’s campus, he has volunteered as a child care specialist at Pixan Ixim, a Maya cultural organization based in South Omaha, worked with families and children at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, and coordinated a fundraiser for Union Pacific to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Ewing’s sarcoma is very rare, affecting almost exclusively children and young adults 20 and younger. It accounts for about 1 percent of all childhood cancers. About 70 percent of children with Ewing’s sarcoma are cured, but the survival rate drops to 56 percent for teens aged 15 to 19.
“One of the big takeaways from all this is that I don’t sweat the little things,” he said. “It will either work out or it won’t work out, and it will be fine.”
With insight that can perhaps be gained so early only by staring death in the face, Kreifels said he hopes to do something in the future that is both fun and engaging, but that he will be content with a steady job and a loving family.
“Family and friends are most important to me,” he said. “Everything else is there, and must be accomplished, but it doesn’t rank as high.”