A chance to give back

Ridgefield can­cer sur­vivor re­ceives $25,000 nurs­ing schol­ar­ship

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Stephen Coul­ter

Natalie Kennedy is here for a rea­son.

The Im­mac­u­late High se­nior and Ridgefield res­i­dent will at­tend Sa­cred Heart Univer­sity in the fall where she will study pe­di­atric on­col­ogy in the school’s hon­ors nurs­ing pro­gram — a de­gree she knows will al­low her to im­pact the lives of oth­ers.

A sur­vivor of acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia, Kennedy — who was di­ag­nosed a week be­fore her sixth birth­day — said she’s al­ways wanted to be a nurse thanks to her pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences at Maria Fareri Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Val­halla, N.Y.

“I never felt more loved than by my nurses and my doc­tors dur­ing my two-plus years of treat­ment,” she said. “They gave me at­ten­tion, they made me feel warm, they gave me hugs and told me not to be scared. I al­ways knew in my heart that I wanted to go into the med­i­cal field so I could give back. I want to be that lov­ing pres­ence in a kid’s life.”

Kennedy’s col­le­giate jour­ney will be made eas­ier

thanks the Gar­den of Dreams Foun­da­tion, which awarded her its Inspire Schol­ar­ship on April 22. The schol­ar­ship will give her $25,000 a year for four years.

She re­ceived the good news from an old friend — New York Rangers goalie Hen­rik Lundqvist, who sent her a video mes­sage.

“I was ab­so­lutely floored, I didn’t think it was real,” said Kennedy, who will also play for Sa­cred Heart’s women’s hockey team in the fall. “I had to watch it sev­eral times — I couldn’t be­lieve it was re­ally hap­pen­ing.

“I’ve met Hen­rik six or seven times over the years so to get that per­son­al­ized mes­sage from him meant the world to me,” she added. “He’s got such a warm per­son­al­ity and makes you feel im­me­di­ately com­fort­able... When I first met him I just couldn’t get over how very con­ver­sa­tional he was and how com­fort­able I was be­ing around him even though he was this fa­mous per­son­al­ity.”

Kennedy has been a youth am­bas­sador for the Hen­rik Lundqvist Foun­da­tion for sev­eral years, host­ing lo­cal com­mu­nity skat­ing events and pro­mot­ing health and ed­u­ca­tion. She came to the Gar­den of Dreams through the Hen­rik Lundqvist Foun­da­tion, which part­ners with Maria Fareri Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal.

“It’s hon­estly hard to put it into words ... Hen­rik’s foun­da­tion and the Gar­den of Dreams were my rocks when I was sick and they’ve sup­ported me through­out my life,” she said. “The fact they’re still sup­port­ive of me even now, even though I’ve been in re­mis­sion for years, re­ally shows me that they love me and that they want to help me with my fu­ture and be part of it . ... They didn’t have to do this for me but it goes to show they be­lieve in what I’m ca­pa­ble of.”

On the ice

Kennedy says watch­ing the Rangers helped her get through the long days of treat­ment when she was a kid.

“I’ve been skat­ing since I was four and my dad and brother played hockey when I was grow­ing up but I didn’t fall in love with the sport un­til I started watch­ing the Rangers,” she said. “I fell in love with them when I was sick. I used to wait around for those 7 p.m. games...The speed, the tal­ent — it was just so amaz­ing to me. It be­came must watch.”

The more she watched, the more she wanted to play her­self.

“I started play­ing at the Win­ter Gar­den in town when I was 10 years old,” she said. “And now I play at the Brew­ster Ice Arena on the girls team there.... What I like most about it is that it’s not just about one per­son. You have to work to­gether and if you don’t it just falls apart.”

Prior to lac­ing up the skates, an 8-year-old Kennedy got to drop the puck at Madi­son Square Gar­den in 2010.

“That’s one of those things you can just never for­get,” she said. “Be­ing on the ice and look­ing up at how big MSG is and you’re all of a sud­den the cen­ter of at­ten­tion on this great huge stage — it was hum­bling . ... It was un­real and ab­so­lutely the best ex­pe­ri­ence of my life.”

She also got to at­tend Lundqvist’s camp and meet other Rangers.

At Im­mac­u­late, Kennedy is part of the school’s cam­pus min­istry, a peer men­tor and a mem­ber of the Key Club, the na­tion’s old­est ser­vice pro­gram for high school stu­dents. She’s also the sec­re­tary of the school’s Na­tional Honor So­ci­ety pro­gram and is a mem­ber of the Sci­ence Na­tional Honor So­ci­ety.

When her brother, Christo­pher, be­gan look­ing at col­leges a few years ago, Kennedy dis­cov­ered Sa­cred Heart and was im­me­di­ately en­chanted by the school.

“I wanted a school that was in a three-hour ra­dius and I just fell in love with it on that visit — the school’s gor­geous and they have an out­stand­ing nurs­ing pro­gram,” she said. “I be­gan speak­ing to the hockey coach and ev­ery­thing just clicked...

“The fact I get to play hockey is just ic­ing on the cake,” she added.

Sec­ond chance

The as­pir­ing nurse be­lieves there was a pur­pose be­hind her sec­ond chance at life — to help kids just like her who have been di­ag­nosed with can­cer and are scared about what will hap­pen next.

“Hav­ing can­cer at such a young age has def­i­nitely shaped me,” Kennedy said. “I want to make sure I’m mak­ing the most of what I have been given. Some peo­ple don’t get what I have to­day — an op­por­tu­nity to make an im­pact in some­one else’s life, and I try to never for­get that.”

In Au­gust, she will cel­e­brate 10 years in re­mis­sion.

“Ev­ery­thing hap­pens for a rea­son,” she said. “I’m just so happy to have a fu­ture ahead of me where I can be a nurse and be that com­pas­sion­ate per­son in a kid’s life and help them through their fears.”

She said be­ing a can­cer sur­vivor has taught her things that other kids don’t get to ex­pe­ri­ence un­til they are adults.

“I’m more grate­ful, I see things dif­fer­ently,” she said. “I had to grow up faster and do things that kids don’t have to typ­i­cally do at that age . ... It’ll stay with me for the rest of my life.”

When asked what she would tell a kid go­ing through chemo­ther­apy, Kennedy said she would say to keep push­ing for­ward.

“There are days you don’t want to go through treat­ment — it’s hard, it’s painful,” she said. “But it’s so worth it to keep fight­ing. The jour­ney is life chang­ing, and you don’t re­ally see God’s hand un­til it’s over. It’s hard to see it when you’re that young but now that I’ve got­ten through the treat­ment I can see it all fell into place the way that it did.

“I would tell them you have a pur­pose, you are here for rea­son and you are go­ing to be some­thing spe­cial.”

Con­trib­uted pho­tos

Natalie Kennedy, a se­nior at Im­mac­u­late High School, re­ceived a $25,000 schol­ar­ship from the Hen­rik Lundqvist Foun­da­tion and the Gar­den of Dreams Foun­da­tion in April. She will play hockey at Sa­cred Heart in the fall and en­ter into the schools hon­ors nurs­ing pro­gram. Be­low, Kennedy stands with New York Rangers goalie Hen­rik Lundqvist.

Con­trib­uted photo

Ridgefield res­i­dent Natalie Kennedy plays hockey at Brew­ster Ice Arena. Kennedy, a se­nior at Im­mac­u­late High School, re­ceived a $25,000 schol­ar­ship from the Hen­rik Lundqvist Foun­da­tion in April. She will play hockey at Sa­cred Heart in the fall and en­ter into the schools hon­ors nurs­ing pro­gram.

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