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'She's here for a reason'

After 27 surgeries, Kampfer sets courageous example
Staff Writer

Kristin Kampfer has turned four days into 18 years.

Eighteen years fraught with physical pain and emotional suffering, yes, but 18 years packed with joyous times and remarkable achievements as well.

Given four days to live when she was born with a frightening combination of birth defects, Kampfer graduated this spring from Jackson High School and is headed to Bowling Green State University in the fall.

"I believe she's here for a reason," said her mother, Karyn. "What she has been through has taught us and has taught her some things."

Kampfer, a four-year letterwinner on the Jackson golf team, has been selected by the Citizen Patriot sports staff as this year's winner of the John O'Connell Award. The award is presented each year to a high school senior student-athlete who exemplifies the courage and determination shown by the former Citizen Patriot sports writer in overcoming difficulties.

"The fact that she was out there was a great example for the other girls," Jackson golf coach Dan Hamilton said. "No matter how cold it was (or) if she was having a bad day, she'd have a smile on her face. She was never pouty. I never saw her mad.

"The other girls had to think, 'If this girl can do this, what do we have to complain about?' "

Conquering her physical limitations has been one thing. Surmounting the emotional trauma that comes with being treated as different is another matter.

"In middle school, I thought, why am I not (normal)?" Kampfer said. "Now, I know I'm different, and I don't give a care. If people have a problem with it, deal with it. I don't care what other people think. That's their problem if they don't want to know the real me. I just forget about them and move on."

Karyn Kampfer smiles at statements like that, recalling years of isolation and hurt.

"To get her to say that -- that takes a lot of maturity on her part," her mother said.

Bruce and Karyn Kampfer had no idea anything was going to be out of the ordinary with their first child. They were expecting a healthy boy. Instead, it was a girl who was born with such defects that the heart surgeon who operated on her three times in her first six days on Earth still refers to her as "my miracle."

"Here's supposed to be the happiest time of your life," Karyn said of her daughter's birth, "and all of a sudden it's, 'Oh my goodness, what's going on?' "

Heart defects -- a closed heart valve and a hole between the two upper vessels of her heart -- were the immediate concern.

In addition to the three heart operations in the first week of her life, she underwent another when she was 9 months old.

She was born with a cleft lip and palate, which has required several operations. Completely deaf in her left ear and suffering 70 percent hearing loss in her right ear, she has endured more surgery trying to gain her some hearing. A curving of the spine known as double curvature scoliosis has in the last few years been corrected with back surgery. She also suffered from growth hormone deficiency.

To arrive where she is today, Kampfer has undergone surgery 27 times.

"I don't like to brag," she said. "But I've been through a lot."

For almost her first year, Kampfer was tube fed because her heart was not strong enough to allow her to eat. She would ingest a small amount and fall asleep, worn out.

A tiny child -- at age 5 she weighed 31 pounds and stood 31 inches tall -- Kampfer took part in occupational therapy and dance, then took up soccer and golf as she entered her school years. She eventually had to give up soccer, but she stuck with golf and showed tremendous improvement after friends Erin and Emily Anderson helped convince her to come out for the high school team.

She averaged in the high 60s for nine holes as a freshman, and by this spring she was down in the mid 50s to post the second-best average on the team. Her low round was a 51. The one concession she has had to make is riding in a cart since back surgery two years ago means she cannot carry something as heavy as a golf bag for any length of time.

One side benefit of the back surgery in which titanium rods were placed in her spine: She is no longer 5-foot-4.

"She grew 31/2 inches in 11 hours of surgery," her mother said.

Kampfer said being on the golf team helped her with socialization. Hamilton said his initial concern about having Kampfer on the team gave way early.

"As far as I'm concerned, she's what coaching high school sports is all about," Hamilton said. "She just played because she loves the game. She liked to play, and if she won, that was fine. The fact that she was out there competing, that made her happy. And her parents were happy she was out there playing."

Nicknamed "Turtle" by her teammates for her plodding pace of play -- an enjoyable round for Kampfer can entail playing nine holes, stopping for lunch and then finishing the back nine -- she has always had their support.

"Even when she was a freshman, and she was just very quiet and she was playing with seniors, those girls took care of her," Hamilton said. "If someone from another school would say something about her being slow, those girls were all over it."

Kampfer's backers also include her brother Steven, two years younger.

"Probably the best thing he's ever done is treat her as normal," their father said. "He doesn't treat her any special way. He takes offense to someone calling her handicapped."

Splitting her time between regular and hearing-impaired classrooms, Kampfer graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average. She plans to study deaf education or social work at Bowling Green. Going to college will be just the latest milestone for one resilient and hardy young lady.

"It's her will to survive, her will to do this," her mother said. "It's all from inside Kristin. It's sheer desire.

"If we could take all the pain away, all the surgeries away, all the heartache she's had away ! if you could take all that away and make it better, every parent would do it. But it's made Kristen a stronger, more independent person, and ! God's not done with her yet."

-- Reach reporter Gary Kalahar at or 768-4966.

© 2004 Jackson Citizen Patriot.

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