An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring KAREN KINAHAN, D.N.P., APN, FNP-BC [ROBERT H. LURIE COMPREHENSIVE CANCER CENTER OF NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS]
Karen Kinahan, D.N.P., APN, FNP-BC, and Andy Seibert - PHOTOS BY ANNIE HILL
ON A COLD JANUARY day in 1987, only one week after completing her own radiation treatment for breast cancer, my mom went to change my diaper and knew that something was wrong. After several appointments in the following weeks, I was diagnosed at 15 months old with rhabdomyosarcoma of the bladder, which at the time was a very rare form of cancer. Shortly after my diagnosis, I began treatment at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Being so young at the outset of my diagnosis, I obviously have very little firsthand recollection of the journey and numerous challenges that my family and I went through on the path to being cancer-free. However, through the years, as my parents have shared stories and details of the agony, trauma and ultimately the joy that were consequences of my diagnosis, one thing that constantly stands out is how blessed I was to have the support and care of many phenomenal doctors and nurses. During the three years of my treatment and the countless follow-up visits over the past 28 years, one person in particular has been a special and constant force of love, support and reassurance for my family.
In 1987, Karen Kinahan was a young nurse who had recently graduated from Valparaiso University. My mom worked at the university and formed an instant connection with Karen. Something that was immediately evident to my family was that Karen was an exceptional nurse who loved children genuinely, and went above and beyond to be a source of encouragement in the midst of challenging treatment. Karen always took the time to support not only the patient but also the entire family who were impacted by the disease. Her patience, empathy and willingness to listen and provide a wealth of knowledge and guidance were invaluable for my family.
Following the three years of intense treatment, my cancer was gone and I have been cancerfree for the past 27 years. Thanks to the care of Karen and the world-class medical professionals at Children’s Memorial Hospital, I have had the opportunity to grow up a happy and healthy child, teenager and adult. Throughout my life, Karen has remained a constant source of support. In the years immediately after my treatment, Karen worked with the long-term clinic at Children’s, and then years later moved to Northwestern Hospital to work with the adult STAR clinic. I was thrilled, when I transitioned my care after I graduated from college to Northwestern from Children’s, that my favorite nurse was there to continue to support me and my family.
As I have grown older and faced numerous potential long-term effects of my treatment, Karen has been there at every step of the way to listen, support and advocate for my healing. In my early 20s, I began to grapple with the serious potential heart health consequences I could deal with as an adult due to the type and amount of chemotherapy I received during my treatment. The more I learned, the more scared and uncertain I felt. However, Karen was there to reassure me and advocate that I connect with a world-class cardiologist at Northwestern. In my late 20s and early 30s, when my wife and I started our family planning process, we knew that there would be tremendous uncertainty about the path we would have to take, and Karen has once again been there to help us through the process.
One thing that I reflect on when I think about Karen is that the lasting, positive influence she has had on me and my family is a small portion of the total impact she has had on the countless number of patients and families she’s worked with over the years. Karen has never stopped learning and improving, and has expanded her knowledge through advanced degrees and research. From my personal experience and from observing her from afar, it is clear that her commitment to patients and to improving the quality of life for cancer survivors is steadfast.
Today, I continue to live a full, happy and healthy life. I have a beautiful wife and a rambunctious puppy, a house my wife and I built and a job that I love. Being a cancer survivor is something I am immensely proud of and is a major part of my identity.
At the same time, I know that the long-term impact of my treatment will not be without its challenges, and I am comforted knowing that Karen will continue to be there for me. Over time, my family has started to consider Karen a part of our family. Karen and her husband attended my wedding five years ago, and I always look forward to sharing the joys and challenges of life with her. Next month will mark 30 years since that cold January day when my mom found what would ultimately change the course of my life forever. To mark the occasion, I will make my annual visit to Northwestern’s STAR clinic. Karen will be there, just like she always has been, and I know I’ll be in good hands