St. Augustine Catholic
Hope for Our Future
Something to Work For
Lessons from the Disabled
Kara's Courage
Twins Learn Early the Gift of Giving
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Kara's Courage
By Mark Udry

Ask a teenager “What do you hope for?” and the answers will be as varied as there are teenagers.

To go to college and earn a degree.
To be a starting point guard in the NBA.
Help the sick and dying by becoming a doctor.
Get married and raise a family.

When Kara Masson of St. Augustine was 13-years-old, she hoped, more than anything else, to live to see 14.

In January 2000, Kara was not feeling like her normal self. She was frequently fatigued, suffered from constant headaches, had no appetite and couldn’t keep down what little food she did eat. Her parents took Kara on a round of doctor’s visits. One specialist thought it was puberty; another said it was migraine headaches. Meanwhile, Kara’s condition worsened.
  This summer, Kara worked as a camp counselor for the Summer Spectacular program of St. Johns County. The young girls attending the camp said they look up to Kara and love being with her.

Kara’s mother, Jane, started doing her own research. She found Kara’s symptoms mirrored someone suffering from a brain tumor.

That bit of medical detective work may have saved Kara’s life.

Jane Masson asked Kara’s pediatrician to order an MRI of Kara’s brain. The results of the scan showed Kara had a brain tumor near her brain stem.

Three days after her MRI, in August 2000, Kara was wheeled into an operating room at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville to have the tumor removed. She went into surgery with the prayers of dozens of fellow Catholics at St. Anastasia Parish in St. Augustine with her.

St. Anastasia, says Kara, is a very close-knit parish, where many of the families know each other.

“I know when I was sick there were a lot of prayers offered up for me,” she said. “People who didn’t even know me but knew my situation were praying for me.”

Doctors thought initially that the golf-ball size tumor was benign. Once Kara’s surgery was underway, they found it was much more serious. Kara had a tumor called Medulloblastoma.
Medulloblastoma is the most common primary central nervous system tumor that appears in childhood. It frequently occurs in an area between the brain stem and the cerebellum. It is an aggressive, fast-growing tumor, which can, if left untreated, spread to the spinal cord and other organs in the body. It is treated with a combination of surgery, to remove the tumor, radiation and chemotherapy to keep the tumor from returning.

After a week’s hospital stay following the surgery, Kara was sent home to recover for the next round of treatments. She had six weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week at Baptist Cancer Institute in Jacksonville. Kara also began chemotherapy at the same time. The chemotherapy was administered intravenously once a week for 18 months.

Once a month, Kara would receive two stronger treatments that required hospitalization at Nemours Children’s Clinic. One was an intravenous fluid, the other was a tablet with medication so strong Jane had to wear rubber gloves when handling it; otherwise it would burn her skin.

“We would go into the hospital for 24 hours and not really sleep because we dealt with the chemo,” said Jane. “We got into a routine. We would rent whatever movies we were hoping to see and take them to the hospital and watch movies for 24 hours.”

Twenty percent of children undergoing treatment for Medulloblastoma sometimes develop severe, sometimes irreversible neurological problems, including loss of speech and difficulties maintaining balance. After her surgery, Kara found that she had trouble standing and walking.

“My balance was off and I probably would have recovered, if I didn’t have to undergo radiation and chemo right away,” she said. “The treatments made me really, really weak.”

The combination of radiation treatment and chemotherapy ravaged Kara’s body. She was in a wheelchair, unable to walk, and all of her hair fell out. She couldn’t keep down any food because her digestive system had shut down. In an effort to keep her body nourished Kara received TPN - Total Parenteral Nutrition - a combination of nutrients and liquids administered intravenously. She ate nothing for more than a year. Her weight dropped to less than 70 pounds.

“My mom was helping me out of the bath one day, and looking at me she said I looked like a skeleton,” Kara said. “She thought at the time that I was going to die.”

“I really didn’t feel like I was going to die, but some days I felt so horrible that I wished I would,” she said.

Kara describes her ordeal as strengthening her faith and making her a stronger Christian. One incident, during a hospital stay for chemotherapy, she recalls with particular clarity.
It was late at night. Kara felt awful, as usual. She was unable to sleep. Kara forced herself to close her eyes, thinking she would eventually fall asleep.

“Almost immediately, I felt like someone was holding me, like a mother holding a baby,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “It was just the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it was Christ holding me, saying, ‘You’re going to get through this, you’ll be okay.’”

Due to her illness, Kara didn’t go to school for the eighth and ninth grades; instead she had a series of tutors who helped her with her studies, and she was able to keep up with her classmates.

Two years after her surgery and treatment, Kara returned to classes as a sophomore at St. Augustine High School. Still weakened from her ordeal and bound in a wheelchair, Kara felt the stares and heard the whispers as her friend, Courtney Jones, helped her navigate the hallways. Most would say hello, but many didn’t talk to her. No one called her at home or included her in after school activities. It was a slight that hurt Kara almost as much as her illness. And yet, she didn’t get angry, didn’t question God about her fate.

“I realize now God didn’t make me sick,” Kara said. “He doesn’t want this stuff to happen, but when it does, he’s there to get you through it. I’m not sick any more, and it’s because of God that I’m still here.”

“God touched me, God kept me alive.”

Kara graduated from St. Augustine High in 2005 and is beginning her sophomore year at Flagler College, majoring in elementary education. When she graduates she wants to teach at R.B. Hunt Elementary School, where she was a student. Kara just finished working a summer job there, helping run the Summer Spectacular Camp for St. Johns County.

She has also slowly regained her strength, going to physical therapy twice a week, working on her balance, in the hopes of walking again.

“My therapist would probably say I’m doing well, although she gets upset with me because I don’t use my walker or crutches as much as I should,” Kara says.

Now, at 19, Kara has a different set of hopes.

“When I was sick, I hoped that I would live,” she said. “I’m hoping that someday I’m going to meet somebody who doesn’t freak out when they see my wheelchair. I want to fall in love, get married and have a family. I want to teach. I want to take my dog Molly and get a house somewhere.”

Sitting in a lounge chair in her family’s living room, Kara draws up her legs and wraps her arms around them. She rests her chin on her knees. She looks away, out through the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard, thinking.
“Most of all, I just want to be normal.”