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Bellevue survivor, now a teen, embraces her future

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Hannah Kunkel and her father, Paul, arrive for her first day of kindergarten, August 29, 2000.
Hannah Kunkel and her father, Paul, arrive for her first day of kindergarten, August 29, 2000.
Hannah Kunkel recovers from surgery after doctors reopened her skull to remove an infection that caused her head to swell back in November, 2000.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Hannah Kunkel recovers from surgery after doctors reopened her skull to remove an infection that caused her head to swell back in November, 2000.
Hannah Kunkel, 18, of Bellevue
Hannah Kunkel, 18, of Bellevue

If anyone knows about adversity, it's Hannah Kunkel of Bellevue. The 18-year-old, who just graduated from Northgate High, was supposed to be dead at age 5.

When she was in kindergarten, doctors at Children's Hospital told her parents she had a rare brain tumor that had killed every child who got it. I documented Hannah's case extensively in the pages of this newspaper, from her radiation treatments and MRIs to the infections, close calls and days in which prayer seemed to be the only way out.

The fact that she's alive isn't lost on Hannah, who's no longer the little girl who tripped on the IV pole while running in the hospital hallway and played doctor in a Children's playroom.

She is tall, assertive and every few minutes flashes the type of mischievous smile that makes you wonder what she's thinking. She's old enough to have forgotten details of her medical nightmare: the headaches, the surgeries and the stares from kindergarten classmates looking at her head left hairless because of chemotherapy. A few weeks ago, she picked up old copies of the Tribune-Review and read some of the stories about her.

“The second paragraph, I started crying,” she told me this week at her mom's house as they prepared to go shopping for her graduation party.

Hannah wants to become a youth minister. She will attend Community College of Allegheny County starting in August to study psychology. Her goal is to eventually transfer to a Christian college, thanks in part to a scholarship from the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

“The experience strengthened my faith,” she said. “It helped me understand life … how life is so short and how it could end in a heartbeat.”

On her nightstand, Hannah keeps a rock engraved with the words, “You are my miracle.” She received it from her mother, Barb Kauffeld.

“She has always been my miracle, always will be,” said Kauffeld, 53. They are words she truly believes. Doctors couldn't explain how Hannah's tumor disappeared.

“I believe the power of prayer is phenomenal and that is probably the only reason that she's still alive,” Dr. Regina Jakacki, Hannah's oncologist, told me in 2001.

There's one lingering problem. Three years ago, doctors found a tumor the size of a jelly bean in Hannah's brain — on the opposite side of where her childhood tumor had sprouted. The tumor, called a glioma, isn't growing at a fast pace. But it's there, and Hannah experiences seizures almost daily. Medicine and sleep help her cope. She rattles off the names of medications as if she were remembering a grocery list or a Post-It note with things she needs to take care of so she can move on.

Hannah talks the way most teenagers do, using the word “like” in every other sentence and constantly mentioning her new boyfriend. What strikes me the most about Hannah is her resolve to move forward — and pay it forward. She finds joy in her youth group, in singing, in teaching. She's eager to set herself free, always looking ahead, not back.

“Life is too short,” she said. “You have to make the best of it.”

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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