Cancer survivor helps kids in treatment
Kaitlin Gartrell, now 17, remembers all the way back to age three, performing medical procedures on her "chemo bear" while she was in the hospital for leukemia treatment. Now, she's taking that experience—the good with the bad—and using it to help other kids who are suffering from cancer.
Kaitlin, a little girl who loved to dance, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of three and underwent chemotherapy for 2 ½ years.
"The outlook was promising. The success rate was pretty high. But, it's still your baby," says Carrie Gartrell, Kaitlin's mother. "And I was in a lot of groups with other moms, and there were kids that they were losing too regularly."
Of course, chemotherapy wipes out white blood cells and therefore decreases the efficacy of the immune system, leaving those in treatment vulnerable to secondary illnesses.
But Kaitlin, even at such a young age, wielded her determination against the disease. And won.
"Even when she was little, I always called her 'My Little Hero,' " Carrie says. "She would go in, when she was three, and show other kids how to take five pills at one time because they were scared. She'd go in the hall and show them, 'You do it this way,' and try to help other kids that way. She was just our little hero. She was a trooper, and fought through everything."
Fourteen years later, the Mulino resident and Canby High School junior spends countless hours volunteering as a founding advisory board member for Candlelighters, an organization that provides support for children who are fighting cancer and their families, from diagnosis through treatment and beyond, according to candlelightersoregon.org.
Kaitlin volunteers for Candlelighters events and recently pulled off an event all on her own. She spent two years planning a tailgating party for the Oregon State versus University of Oregon Civil War football game. Teens fighting cancer were able to attend the event as special guests, and even received swag bags, including team scarves that Kaitlin made by hand.
"We were at one of the Candlelighters fundraiser galas…They were doing the kids' stories on the screens," Carrie says. "And the first thing, she walked out and said, 'Mom, they need me to help them.' That's what she said."
And Kaitlin wants to take helping kids with cancer many steps further. With the determination she fought with so many years ago now even stronger, the teen strives to become a pediatric oncologist.
"[Cancer] was something that I had to go through, and so it was always something that was a big part of my life. So I was around a lot of people that deal with cancer a lot," Kaitlin says. "I was around oncologists all the time. They are some of my favorite people ever. They're really driven and funny, and they work really hard.
"I've always said that I'd be a good pediatric oncologist, because I've been on the other side," Kaitlin says. "So, I feel like it'd be a different perspective to have a doctor that knows exactly what you're thinking when you're two years old and the doctor's poking you, and you just really don't understand why they won't stop poking you."
To achieve her lofty goal, Kaitlin works diligently in every area of her life. She is currently achieving a 4.0 grade point average while taking many honors and college-level classes.
"I know it's weird that I'm 17, and I know what I'm going to do; but I know 100 percent that that's what I'm going to end up doing," Kaitlin says, "and even if it takes 13 years of school to get there, that I'm going to be a pediatric oncologist. That's my goal, and I'm doing everything between here and there to get there.
"I really do just want to help," Kaitlin adds.
She is also involved in FFA, 4-H, FBLA, National Honor Society, choir and tennis and notably, for the last three years, she has been a part of the five-time state championship Canby Cougar Dance Team.
"Kaitlin is an amazing kid," says Tonya Boustead, Kaitlin's FBLA adviser. "She is a dedicated student and one of the most reliable members of our FBLA chapter…I can always count on her to get things done even with her competitive dance schedule. I commend her dedication to her activities and education."
As a pediatric oncologist in the future, Kaitlin's goal is to make the treatment process easier and more enjoyable for kids. She also hopes to contribute to research into the disease.
"I kind of had a gut feeling when she was little that somehow this story would take her somewhere and she'd make a difference," Carrie says, "and it's really fun to see her doing that."