Paying it Forward
Former Make-a-Wish Child Pursuing Nursing Degree So She Can Give Back
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Kiefer Family
Karyn Kiefer was just 15 years old when sharp, stabbing back pain began to incapacitate her.
“I missed more school than I can count,” says Karyn, who recalls sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing.
Her mom, Kim, desperate for answers, took Karyn to multiple doctors, each one chalking up the discomfort to growing pains or sore muscles from competitive swimming. Cortisone shots proved to be futile as did every other treatment offered. Finally, after two years of excruciating pain, Karyn, a senior at the time, was told by a Riley physician: “The good news is that I know what’s causing your pain. The bad news is that you’re going to have to go out of state to fix it.”
Ultimately, she had a mass on her spine. To shrink it would require proton therapy (a controlled form of radiation). Since only a handful of doctors provide the service, Karyn was given the option of traveling to either Illinois, Tennessee or Texas. They chose Chicago for a month-long series of treatments.
To add to the stress, during Karyn’s first session, the family got word that her dad, Kerry, had lost his job. Thankfully, insurance came through her mom’s work, though proton therapy is extremely expensive, so despite insurance approving 18 treatments, even now, two years later, the family is still paying off their medical bills.
Towards the end of Karyn’s treatments, a woman walked up to her and asked, “What do you want your Make-a-Wish trip to be?”
Make-a-Wish Foundation is an organization that grants vacation wishes to children diagnosed with critical illnesses. Karyn was eligible since she had received life-threatening radiation treatments that exposed her other organs.
Following high school graduation in June 2016, a pink limousine pulled up to Karyn’s house to whisk Karyn, her parents, and sister Katelynn to the airport. They were headed to Disney World!
“When we landed in Orlando, there were two good looking firefighters waiting to greet me,” says Karyn, who was 18 at the time. “My sister was bright red, but I loved it.”
The family stayed at the Polynesian Resort where each morning they dined on waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse ears. Their first stop was the Magic Kingdom where the family rode every ride in record time since they got to cut to the front of the Fast Pass lines. While there, Karyn learned that there was a restaurant called The Crystal Palace where Winnie the Pooh characters mingle with diners as they eat. Karyn desperately wanted to see her favorite character, Eeyore, but didn’t have a reservation to the popular dining hot spot. Crew members pulled some strings, however, and got the family a table, allowing Karyn to hug her precious donkey.
While in Orlando, the family also visited Animal Kingdom, Sea World and Universal Studios. Plus, they squeezed in parasailing and indoor skydiving.
When they returned home, Karyn had to do her due diligence where her health was concerned, initially going in for an MRI every month. With each “all clear” that she received, however, the check-ups extended a bit — first to three months, then six months. This past spring, she was told she didn’t have to return again for a year. Thankfully, the mass, which Karyn playfully named “Fred,” continues to shrink. And she hasn’t been in pain since just before her Make-a-Wish trip.
Prior to her health crisis, Karyn had always aspired to be a teacher, but when she was sick, she had a nurse who served to alter the course of her dreams. Though Karyn didn’t spend a great deal of time with her doctor, the same couldn’t be said for Brooke, the nurse who was assigned to her case.
“Brooke made me feel comfortable and safe throughout that whole ordeal, making sure that not only I was okay but that my family was okay, too,” Karyn says. “A nurse is kind of like a second mother when you’re stuck in a hospital. I was grateful to have such an awesome one.”
Karyn felt that pediatric nursing would be the perfect way to blend her old passion with her new one — caring for little boys and girls, helping to make them feel safe and secure. Karyn, currently a nursing student at IUPUI, works as a nurse’s aide at Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, picking up several 12-hour shifts a week. She takes patients’ vital signs, helps keep them clean and works on their circulation by getting them up and moving. Now that she’s the caregiver, she’s the one who gets to comfort patients and their families.
“I’ve bonded with a lot of my patients,” Karyn says. “Some of them send me sweet messages through Facebook, telling how much I meant to them. Those kinds of notes reinforce that I’ve picked the right career.”
Karyn also recently launched Heavenly Handmade, a scrapbooking, card, stationery business that helps supplement her income while also feeding her creative genius. She came up with the name as a result of her health scare.
When she was really sick, however, and struggling to find a diagnosis, she wrestled with her faith for a time.
“I wondered why God wasn’t doing anything for me,” she says. “I was frustrated because no doctor was able to figure me out. After awhile, I questioned if God was even real.”
Ultimately, she felt God’s love working through her mom, who never left her side.
“She cried with me and rubbed my back when I was in agony. She never gave up,” says Karyn, who ultimately found her way back to Christ and now attends Plainfield Christian Church.
As Karyn returned to her faith roots, it was her creative projects that kept her going.
“It was healing to make stuff so I like sharing that gift with others,” says Karyn, who makes custom cards for weddings, birthdays, baby showers and special events. She has also fashioned ornate home decorations out of mason jars, created a wine glass holder and is working on a family tree project.
After Karyn obtains her nursing degree, she hopes to get a job at Riley Hospital as a pediatric nurse. In addition, someday Karyn wants to volunteer as a Make-a-Wish coordinator so that she can help others’ dreams come true.
“That’s definitely in my future,” she says.
To check out Karyn’s creations, visit facebook.com/heavenly.hmade/.