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Discovering a Calling

Patient Stories

Kirsten Karis now works alongside the nurses at Mass. Eye and Ear who treated her father and inspired her to become a nurse.    

Kirsten Karis never thought she would end up working in the medical field. In college she studied international studies and the Spanish language. Then, while studying abroad in Spain, Kirsten found out her father, Jonathan, was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer.

Over the next two years, her father underwent multiple endoscopic surgeries at Massachusetts General Hospital to remove the small spot of cancer in his larynx (voice box) and vocal cord. But the cancer kept coming back.

Kirsten’s father came under the care of Daniel G. Deschler, MD, FACS, and Derrick T. Lin, MD, FACS, head and neck cancer surgeons at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. In the fall of 2014, he underwent a total laryngectomy, which is the removal of the voice box, and reconstructive surgery.

Becoming a Caregiver

After the surgery, Kirsten left her first post-college job to help her parents. She spent most of the next three weeks on the 11th floor at Mass. Eye and Ear while her father was in recovery.

“The care we received was incredible. We were supported and encouraged to do whatever we needed to, to spend time with my dad or learn how to do things for ourselves,” said Kirsten.

“There were many days I came to visit in the morning and my dad would tell me that a nurse had spent hours talking with him overnight while he was anxious or scared.”

During this time, the nurses taught Kirsten how to care for her father at home. She learned to use a portable suction machine to clear his laryngectomy tube, which is an artificial airway. She also learned how to deliver medications and nutrition through a feeding tube and change the dressings on healing skin grafts.

“It was the best decision I ever made to spend that time with my family and make a difference in my Dad’s quality of life,” said Kirsten.

Giving Back

Looking for a way to say thank you to her father’s care team, Kirsten applied to run the Boston Marathon® for Mass. Eye and Ear through Team Eye and Ear.

“When I told my dad that I was going to run the marathon, it was one of the happiest moments in his recovery, because he felt like we were doing something to give back,” said Kirsten.

The fundraising for the marathon became a source of positivity for their family. Kirsten and her father attended team dinners together and sent thank-you notes to those who donated.

Jonathan passed away in April of 2015, three weeks before the marathon.

“It was really hard to not have him there for it because he had been such a large part of my training and he was the reason I did it,” Kirsten explained. “There was obviously something missing. But, it was a great way to honor him.”

Moving Forward

The following summer, Kirsten looked into becoming a nurse. After taking numerous prerequisite science classes, Kirsten pursued an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Northeastern University.

“I never would have considered a career in nursing if it weren’t for my experiences with my dad at Mass. Eye and Ear,” she mentioned.

In September 2018, Kirsten began working on the 11th floor at Mass. Eye and Ear. “The nurses who treated my dad and were my inspiration to go to nursing school are now my colleagues.”

Kirsten’s experiences with her father have helped her treat patients with compassion and understanding.

“I’m able to advocate for my patients because I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” said Kirsten. “It helps me feel connected to my dad and I really enjoy what I’m doing.”

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