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Up ‘Til Dawn: Wittenberg Students Seek to Change Children’s Lives

December 12, 2011  
 Filed in Community, Events

Hillary Hassink ’13 has never shied away from an opportunity to help. Growing up in Oklahoma, Hassink clearly remembers just jumping in headfirst whenever a call went out to help someone in need. “I would always ask, what can I do?”

Kelly Brothers ’13 and Hillary Hassink ’13

So when she awoke early last summer in her Tulsa home to find her collarbone swollen, she realized that she might need to ask for help herself this time. Managing to maneuver around the swelling to get ready for the day, Hassink headed to her local hospital where she was volunteering.

Questions to colleagues and friends at the hospital resulted in her scheduling a check-up with her physician a week later. What transpired next changed her life forever.

Cancer, the diagnosis quickly came down.  At 19, Hassink had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Everywhere she looked on the PET scan, she saw a tumor. Had she waited another week, doctors said it would have metastasized.

Now turn the clock back and head 800 miles to a Dublin, Ohio, high school where Kelly Brothers ’13 was feeling exhausted, worn-out, disengaged – a total contrast for the normally enthusiastic, active athlete and class leader.  Walking to her next class one early spring day, Brothers suddenly slipped on the steps in the school’s heavily trafficked stairwell. Just a simple fall, she thought. Brush off the dust and move on, only moving was the problem as she quickly realized when she tried to take another step.

“My brain wasn’t communicating with my legs,” she recalled, as she found herself holding out her hand to avoid slamming her body into a wall at the base of the steps.  “I knew something wasn’t right.”

Doctor visits immediately followed with test after test performed. And then the diagnosis: brain tumor, specifically, juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a benign, slow-growing tumor that typically develops in children. Three days after Easter in 2006, Brothers was in surgery at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where doctors removed 90 percent of the tumor without incident. Her prognosis: excellent.

Two lives, separate diagnoses, different courses of treatment, yet uniquely now intertwined through Wittenberg, a place where both women have dedicated significant time to helping in the fight against childhood diseases, and the place that will launch their intended careers as nurse practitioners.

To help with the fight, Hassink and Brothers took on leadership roles with Up ’Til Dawn, a campus-based awareness and fundraising organization affiliated with St. Jude’s, which aims to be the “world leader in advancing the treatment and prevention of catastrophic diseases in children.”

Brothers experienced St. Jude’s firsthand as her entire stay, surgery and post-op visits were paid for by the hospital outside of what her family medical plan contributed. She will remain a patient for life.

“St. Jude’s, I believe, is the greatest charity you can support as it shares all its research freely because it simply wants to help children,” Brothers explained.

To date, Wittenberg students have joined Hassink and Brothers, along with Up ’Til Dawn executive board members, in taking up the cause. Just last month, more than 100 students participated in a letter-writing campaign to friends and families on behalf of St. Jude’s. Another Valentine fundraiser is on the horizon.

Their work with Up ’Til Dawn, however, remains just one passion Hassink and Brothers share. While Hassink received intense chemotherapy for six months at Oklahoma Oncology – treatments that have since sent her cancer into remission — she and Brothers both know with absolute confidence that their respective futures will involve helping children.

“My last treatment was Dec. 15, 2010, and I’m back at Wittenberg, taking 20 credit hours this semester and well on track to graduate on time with hopes of continuing at Johns Hopkins thanks to Wittenberg’s 3-2 program with the premier medical institution,” Hassink said.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse because I’ve always wanted to help people, and I now know that God is calling me to work in pediatric oncology,” she continued. ”I believe things happen for a reason, and I never would have considered oncology had this not happened to me. Now, though, I know it’s what I am meant to do.”

“I always knew working with kids would be in my future, but the care I received, especially from the nurse practitioners who took care of me, has made me want to do the same for other children,” Brothers added. “I’m considering pediatric oncology or pediatric neurology after I graduate. My parents often said, ‘God doesn’t test the weak,’ and I believe that I was given this to help others find the strength I found to get through it.”

Lives forever connected, future professions sure to intersect, and their call to care, in a word, extraordinary.

“When I tell people my plans,” Hassink says, “the response is often, ‘Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know that 90 percent of the children being treated for cancer don’t make it?’”

“I answer that I do, but that I want to be there for the 10 percent who do and for all the kids so I can brighten the days they do have and make each day the best day they have ever known.”

And together, they will.

Written By: Karen Gerboth
Photo By: Erin Pence

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