From ‘I survived’ to ‘I do’

On her wedding day, Kierstynn Foster Rozema and her groom visit the place where she faced and beat leukemia.

Kierstynn Foster Rozema swept through the doors of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, a beaming, beautiful bride in a white wedding gown, with her handsome groom by her side.

On the happiest day of her life, Kierstynn chose to visit the place where she fought and survived leukemia as a teenager.

She endured many tough and terrifying moments here. But she also found hope, healing and treasured friendships. That’s why she wanted to visit the hospital on her big day to take wedding photos.

“The people at Helen DeVos have basically become my family,” she said. “All the support they gave through the treatment and even after―I just feel such an immense connection to this place.”

Kierstynn and her new husband, Daniel Rozema, arrived with their wedding party in a white limousine, coming from their ceremony at Hope College’s Dimnent Memorial Chapel.

The cheerful group mingled in the hospital lobby, laughing, chatting and posing for photos.

Joining the celebration were Beth Kurt, MD, Kierstynn’s pediatric oncologist, and James Fahner, MD, the division chief of pediatric hematology and oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Kurt and Kierstynn wept as they hugged.

“It’s a dream come true. It really is,” Dr. Kurt said, of Kierstynn’s wedding day. “She’s always been very special to me.”

Kierstynn’s mother, Karen Foster, dabbed at tears. Having Dr. Kurt attend her daughter’s wedding meant a great deal to the family.

“She was always very sweet and considerate and very kind,” she said.

Kierstynn and Daniel posed for photos in the hospital’s Balk Café, with its large, colorful and sparkly mural serving as a backdrop. Kierstynn picked one spot in particular―in front of a tulip that she always admired when she came to the hospital for treatment.

To see Kierstynn, a radiant bride eagerly looking ahead to the future, touched her doctors deeply.

“It is so gratifying. You can’t even imagine,” Dr. Kurt said. “This is the best feeling.”

“The best part of our job. No question,” Dr. Fahner said.

‘We are going to beat it’

Just six years ago, Kierstynn arrived at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in a very different frame of mind.

A 16-year-old junior at Byron Center High School, she had just attended prom, taken an ACT test and gotten her driver’s license. Leukemia definitely was not on her radar.

But she often felt nauseated and dizzy. After a blood test showed a low platelet count, her parents brought her to the hospital on May 12, 2011.

In her room on the ninth floor, Kierstynn heard the news that turned her world upside down.

“I just remember (Dr. Kurt) sitting on my bed, holding my hand,” Kierstynn recalled. “She said, ‘We looked at the cells and they are cancerous. But we are going to start testing tomorrow to see what we are up against and we are going to go at it and we are going to beat it.’”

The word “cancer” left Kierstynn stunned.

“As a teenager, you think you’re invincible,” she said.

She struggled to make sense of this news, and grieved as she saw the tearful reactions of her mom, her dad, Bret Foster, her younger brothers, Bret and Corbin, and their network of relatives and friends.

“I was a mess,” she said. “I bawled that first night.”

But she also found comfort in her faith. She trusted God would find a way to use her experience for good.

“I remember feeling an immense amount of peace,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be the end of the road for me.”

Kierstynn spent the next two weeks in the hospital, as she began treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

That summer and throughout her senior year of high school, she received chemotherapy treatments and blood transfusions. She underwent bone marrow aspirations and spinal taps. She lost her hair.

“I really struggled with the treatment,” she said. “I was nauseous almost the entire time. I lost quite a bit of weight and got down to 90 pounds.”

In those tough days, she formed close bonds with the pediatric oncology staff―bonds that went beyond blood counts and medical updates.

“It’s such a holistic view of care,” she said. “The doctors get to know you on a personal level.”

She continued receiving chemotherapy throughout her freshman year at Hope College, completing treatment Aug. 15, 2013.

From her freshman year, she became involved with Dance Marathon, a yearlong fundraiser for Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital that culminates in a 24-hour dance-athon in the spring.

“It was so empowering to be involved in giving back to the hospital,” she said. “It gradually became the center of my entire college experience.”

In her senior year, Kierstynn became one of the Dance Marathon’s four directors.

Now 22, she returns to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for checkups once a year. She looks forward to those visits like mini-reunions, a chance to catch up with the doctors and nurses.

When she and Daniel planned their wedding day, they talked about places to take wedding photos between the ceremony and the reception. Kierstynn realized the colorful mural in the Balk Café, on the first floor of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, would be the perfect backdrop.

“It’s one of my favorite places,” she said.

She sees the visit as a way to recognize the staff that helped her through a difficult time. And it’s a reminder of how far she has come in six years.

After her diagnosis, she recalled, “I wondered if I would ever get that experience to marry someone. As time went on and I got healthier, there still was a question of, ‘Will I find someone who’s OK with this? Am I going to find someone who understands?’”

In Daniel, she found that person. They met their freshman year, became close friends and eventually fell in love.

They both graduated in 2016. Kierstynn went to work as a program associate at Make-A-Wish Michigan, and Daniel took a job as an engineer.

“She is one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met,” Daniel said. “She is my best friend and I love spending time with her and being with her.”

He admires the way she uses her experience as “a testament to God and his work.”

“It takes a very strong person to go through that,” he said. “It amazes me how positive her outlook is.”

Learn more about the nationally-ranked care for children with cancer and blood disorders at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

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