Community rallies to help Mundelein teacher fighting cancer
Blood drives are commonplace in the suburbs, but the one planned Tuesday at Mundelein Elementary District 75 headquarters has special significance for the staff, students and parents.
The drive will honor Kristen Meister, a kindergarten teacher at the district's Washington Early Learning Center. She was diagnosed last summer with advanced cancer but returned to the classroom in January to start the new year.
"I have been so blessed by my Washington family, both my colleagues and the staff and students and their families," said Meister, who learned in August she had Stage 4 colon cancer after seeking medical advice for stomach pain.
The Mundelein resident has been teaching 16 years, including the last 11 in District 75. Today she teaches the English language sections of the district's two-way immersion program, which started three years ago.
Along the way, she's had an impact on many young minds, including Taylor Bautista. Her dad, Brian, is the chief operating officer of Versiti, a Milwaukee-based firm that operates Heartland Blood Centers in Illinois.
After learning of Meister's diagnosis and having had family experience with cancer, Bautista wanted to help and suggested a blood drive.
"Mrs. Meister has such a huge heart for her students and her positive energy is contagious throughout the school," he said.
School district administrators were all in on the idea, and the Versiti team began to mobilize. As of Thursday, more than 60 people had made appointments to donate and many others plan to walk in -- double the size originally envisioned, according to Bautista.
Donors will include Meister's longtime colleague, Janet McMahan, a special-education teacher at Washington. She'll be giving blood for the first time.
"I'm a fainter, but I'd do anything for Kristen," McMahan said. "She is such a bright light in our school. I've never known anyone to fight cancer with such hope and optimism. She's a real inspiration."
Meister said she was having stomach issues last year and finally decided to see her doctor, thinking it would be a routine visit.
"It was easy to dismiss because it did go away and was intermittent," she said of the stomach pain. "They said, 'If you don't go into the hospital, your organs may be shutting down because your hemoglobin is so low.' "
Meister was given a 10 percent chance of living five more years. Most recently, CT scans show the cancer has gone to minimally visible, according to the blood drive invite.
"My doctor's words were, 'Wow, that's spectacular,'" Meister said. "He was surprised by the results."
By early winter, she was ready to return to school "for the students' sake and my own sake," and to again feel like more than a patient, she said. "It's good to be back in a routine."
Meister said she doesn't like being the center of attention but is thrilled to be part of the blood drive, which also is being held in honor of other teachers who have had serious health issues the past year.
The drive takes place from 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, at District 75 headquarters, 470 N. Lake St. (Route 45) in Mundelein.
To schedule an appointment, call Yuli at (847) 949-2700 or visit www.versiti.org. Walk-ins are welcome.
Meister said she is surprised at how good she feels but realizes there may be a long process ahead.
"In Stage 4 cancer you're never in remission," she said. "You're in maintenance."