Scholar-athlete’s next goal: ‘I want to save the life of somebody’s sister’

Scholar-athlete’s next goal: ‘I want to save the life of somebody’s sister’

Double major Karlee Henderson heads off to CMSRU--and a future in pediatrics

This cancer story has a happy ending—a joyful, uplifting, inspiring, awesome, happy ending.

Karlee Henderson explains the story scientifically. You’d expect nothing less from a medical school-bound student who graduated summa cum laude from Rowan University's College of Science and Mathematics on Tuesday, May 12, with bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and biochemistry.

“We hit every single mark that could have gone right,” she says. “We found a neurosurgeon brave enough to tackle my sister’s surgery. We had the best physicians. We had great nurses. In fact, we attribute some of her biggest moments to the nurses.”

Karlee’s sister, Kelsea, who also has the heart of a scientist, knows all of that is true. But she does not discount, not by a long shot, the intangibles—a can-do attitude, familial devotion, extraordinary love—that helped her defeat a 1-percent cancer survival rate in 2006 at age 13.

At the center of that maelstrom, right beside Kelsea every step of the way, was Karlee, then just 10 years old, and their parents, Pam and Ted.

“Karlee was so young when she found out that she might lose her only sister,” says Kelsea, who was diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, which ran down the length of her spine and wrapped around the base of her left lung.

 “Yet, she showed such courage and positivity throughout the four-year ordeal. Karlee’s strength allowed me to be strong and continue to fight for my life. She was—and still is—my hero.”

Bound for CMSRU

While most physicians would not operate on Kelsea because of the riskiness of her surgery, Dr. Phillip B. Storm, chief of the Division of Neurosurgery at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), had another plan. He performed the 32-hour operation.

“Dr. Storm said he would not have opted to perform the incredibly risky surgery to remove my tumor if it had not been for the optimism and positivity that my family and I possessed,” says Kelsea, 24, today nine years cancer-free. A graduate of Saint Joseph’s University, she’s a second-year medical student at Creighton University in Nebraska.

“Our family is so incredibly close and we were able to support each other throughout my battle. I wouldn’t be alive today without their love and support.”

Now, Karlee is prepared to have an impact on other families facing similar monumental challenges. In the fall, she will be a member of the fourth class at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) as he begins her quest to become a pediatric specialist.

 “I want,” she says with quiet confidence, “to save the life of somebody’s sister.”

236 days in the hospital

With the precision of a veteran surgeon, Karlee can recite all of the surgeries and setbacks her sister faced. In addition to the operation performed by Storm, which included plastic surgery performed by Dr. David W. Low at CHOP, plus rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Kelsea returned to the hospital the following year when complications arose.

She spent 236 days at CHOP as she battled pseudo seizures caused by high blood pressure, meningitis, pneumonia, infections, kyphosis and scoliosis. Kelsea’s spine, which had been constructed with rods, pins and a synthetic mesh plate, had to be removed due to chronic infections.

In their place, in a 24-hour surgery, doctors took a non-weight-bearing bone from Kelsea’s leg, broke it in two places and laid it along her spine, securing it with rods and pins. Because Kelsea suffered lung damage, doctors plugged part of her lung with one-way valves, making her the youngest person ever to receive the valve installation, Karlee says with pride.

A gifted field hockey player, Karlee would finish school and hockey practice and then head to CHOP to be with her family. While she was extraordinarily interested in each medical procedure—“I was always trying to figure out what was going on,” Karlee says—her goal was to serve as a support person for her sister. She was a middle-schooler at the time.

“In the hospital, I knew where the Lorna Doones and Oreos were kept. I knew where the slushee machine was on the third floor. There are different qualities of blankets in the hospital laundry. I knew how to pick out the soft ones,” recalls Karlee, who graduated fourth in her class from Woodstown High School in 2011.

“She came to the hospital every night after school and field hockey practice to spend time with me and help cheer me up,” adds Kelsea. “She has a remarkable artistic ability. My room was always the most beautifully decorated in the entire hospital because of her.

“She knew just how I liked everything. She would redo my bandages when they were messed up. She would help to change me if I wanted a new set of pajamas. She would spray my bed sheets with Bath and Body Works to take way the hospital smell. I don’t think she even realized at the time how much she was actually helping in my recovery.”

Bole Humanitarian Award

With authority, Karlee knows what type of physician she wants to be. She spent years watching some of the world’s most brilliant pediatric specialists heal her sister. The best ones, she says, were honest, open and astutely aware of the role a patient’s support system has on their ability to respond to treatment—and thrive.

“The good doctors were always positive. You could tell they were good people. They didn’t put themselves above you,” says Karlee, who received Rowan’s Robert D. Bole Humanitarian Award, presented to a graduating senior whose lifestyle and activities display compassion and concern for the well-being of others.

“There was always one thing after another with my sister,” Karlee continues. “Dr. Storm would come into the room, plop down in a chair, put his hand on his head, sigh and say, ‘Your sister is killing me.’ He always made us feel like we were working on each challenge together.

“My parents, from the beginning, decided they were going to be honest and truthful and not hide anything. They emphasized staying in the moment, finding the positive things every day, looking for something to be happy about.”

‘She has an innate ability to interact with people on a personal level’

At Rowan, Karlee, herself, made the most of every moment, taking advantage of every opportunity, rising above any challenge, her professors and coaches say.

With a near-perfect 3.99 grade point average in two rigorous majors, she excelled in the classroom. In Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Greg Caputo’s laboratory, she was a quiet leader in the study of antimicrobial peptides. On the field hockey field, where she was a three-year starter and two-year captain of Coach Penny Kempf’s squad, she led the team with a work ethic and focus that Kempf says was remarkable.

“No matter how busy her schedule is, wherever Karlee is, that situation has her complete focus. Her ability to do that gives each person or group the confidence that she is emotionally, physically and intellectually invested in them,” says Kempf, noting that Karlee received NCAA all-academic honors four straight years and served as co-chair of Rowan’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC).

“She believes that here is a purpose that is bigger than her,” Kempf continues. “She does not see her experiences as work or obligations. She sees them as something that she is lucky to be a part of. To her, they’re opportunities that help her to develop as a person.”

“Karlee has million things going on, but she just puts her shoulder in and gets things done exceedingly well,” says Caputo. “She’s a leader by example and she has an innate ability to interact with people on a personal level. She has great compassion. She’s truly dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives.”


Active with Rowan’s Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer and entertainment committee member for Relay for Life, which benefits the American Cancer Society, six years ago Karlee and Kelsea founded PICU-ups, a program that provides care packages to children in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at CHOP.  Karlee got SAAC involved in the program, which has provided patients—and their siblings—with more than 300 care packages that include nail polish, art supplies, books, action figures and other gifts that help pediatric patients get through long, difficult hours in the hospital.

“PICU-ups aren’t just for the patients. They’re for their siblings, too,” says Karlee. “I’m hoping we can bring the program to Cooper University Hospital, also.”

Karlee considered a few different medical schools before deciding on CMSRU. The medical school’s mission, she says, absolutely resonated with her view of the field—and of patient care.

“At CMSRU, they’re trying to change the way medicine is taught. I love the energy and positivity of the students and faculty. They have a great mission, which I can relate to. And I think their curriculum and style will allow me to become the same type of physician that made me feel comfortable when I was in the hospital with Kelsea.

“Being in the hospital made me realize that people in medicine could change lives,” adds Karlee, who, since her sister’s recovery, has shadowed Storm and Low—and conducted research last summer with CHOP neuroscientist Dr. Adam Resnick.

“There were so many medical personnel who gave us hope. I want to be someone who contributes to the way people approach their diagnosis and their fears. I want to be a doctor that people can relate to--someone who holds people accountable and always holds patients as their top priority.”