Scholarship recipient who had heart transplant has 'continued drive'

Kathleen Birsic hugs Blessing-Rieman nursing student Shelby Kite, center, while Birsic and Dr. William Birsic presented six Blessing-Rieman students with Sarah and Friends scholarships at Blessing-Rieman College on Monday, Sep. 9, 2019. Dr. William and Kathleen Birsic formed the Sarah and Friends organization after their daughter, Sarah's untimely death. The goal of the organization is to help young women in need and to realize their full potential. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
Jake Shane1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 10, 2019 12:01 am

QUINCY -- Shelby Kite spent 73 days in a closet-sized hospital room waiting for the perfect heart to arrive.

During that stay, the junior nursing student at Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing and Health Sciences had regular visits by the medical personnel at University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, and she started putting her nursing school background to work with some of the medical students.

"I had a (nursing) student try to take my blood once, and there's an area of the needle -- it's like a bevel, it's slanted -- it's supposed to be bevel up," Kite said. "I remember being like, ‘Bevel up! Bevel up! Nope, don't do that.' "

Kite's nursing education will continue with the support of a scholarship for more than $16,000 from the Sarah and Friends organization during a presentation Monday at Blessing-Rieman. More than $22,600 was awarded to six students by the organization, which was created in honor of the late Sarah Birsic, who died in a ATV accident in 2012.

After turning 19, Kite was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, and six months after her diagnosis she underwent more than 70 chemotherapy treatments and was celebrating remission.

However, a few months later, the Keokuk, Iowa, native started experiencing symptoms that her physician believed was pneumonia. She was fatigued, coughing and could hardly catch her breath.

When she could no longer walk in a straight line, Kite went to the emergency room and was transferred to Iowa City where after weeks of hospitalization, she was diagnosed with chemotherapy induced cardiomyopathy.

Her heart was so weak that she needed a heart transplant, but she couldn't be listed as a candidate for heart transplant until her cancer proved to be in remission for years to follow.

Kite's only option was for a left ventricular assist device implant, but her cardiomyopathy was so extensive, it also required a right ventricular assist device implant for 20 days.

After months of recovery, she completed her associate degree and applied for nursing school at Blessing Rieman.

After finishing her sophomore year of nursing school, she started to complete heart transplant evaluations to get her on the transplant list in December 2018, but six weeks into her junior year her implant device started to malfunction.

Because the cause of the failure couldn't be identified, Kite was immediately placed on the transplant list and started her 73-day wait.

"I was at such a high status that I knew I was going to get a heart, but it was just hard waiting," she said. "I was having a lot of hearts offered to me, but they were just too large. I knew there was activity, but it's hard having to wait for something that you know that someone is going to have to die. It was hard for me to want that."

Kite knows her experience provided her with the prospective that many in health care don't have, and she shared that with students that were in her hospital room.

"I was able to help the students understand what patients are going through, how their feeling, how sad it is to be there everyday, how frustrating it is to get woken up at 5 a.m. in the morning just to get labs drawn, how sometime the hospital setting really isn't a healing one," she said.

Birsic's parents Dr. William and Kathleen Birsic were thrilled to see the scholarship committee selected Kite after seeing her continued drive to become a nurse.

"Her essay that she wrote was extremely heartfelt, and in my heart I was hoping she would win so bad," Kathleen Birsic said. "She's the type of woman that my daughter would want to succeed."

Because of the support from a fundraiser last October, Sarah and Friends was able to provide scholarships for two years.

A future round of scholarships isn't planned as the Birsics are returning to their hometown Pittsburgh, Pa

However, the Birsics established the Sara Christine Birsic Memorial Foundation through the Community Foundation Serving West Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri, which will continue to honor their daughter for years to come.

Kite is grateful for the scholarship, which will help the cost of education and her continued medical expenses.

"I have triplet siblings in college, so there's a lot on my parents' plate," she said with a laugh.