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Erika Kristensen, Northwest Nazarene University soccer

Multiple surgeries chart her prognosis for medicine

By Michelle Hiskey

Two scarred areas, not all that obvious, attest to Erika Kristensen’s experience under surgeons’ scalpels. They serve as signposts to her future career.

On her ankle, she has tiny scars from multiple scope surgeries on her ankle. After several tries, surgeons eventually pinpointed and repaired nerve damage.

On the back of her scalp, a 4-inch scar marks where surgeons removed a cyst on her pineal gland. Along this scar, hair grows that is not as long as the rest. 

The surgeries showed her – as did her family’s incidences of breast cancer – what she might do in medicine.

“I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, but then I realized there was so much more in medicine that I could do,” she said. “I would be interested in brain surgery, but I know there’s a lot more out there beyond that.”

Kristensen’s academic excellence in a pre-med curriculum earned her a 10-week, $5,000 fellowship at the St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor and Medical Research Institute in Boise.

“I looked at the accumulation of certain cells in tumors,” she said. “I stain the cells looking for different proteins that are known to be connected to a certain cancer.”

Her own scars prove her love for soccer, which she had to miss post-surgery while she healed.

“I was so excited when I could play again,” said Kristensen, who because of the ankle surgeries almost missed getting recruited out of high school. By performing well in a tournament, she ended up at Northwest Nazarene near Boise, about a seven-hour drive from her home in Portland.

In college, the brain surgery – shortly after her freshman season -- sidelined her for her entire sophomore season.

“I always worked hard to prove that I could do it,” Kristensen, now a junior forward, said of returning to soccer. “That was a big step after not playing and having to be out of it.”

More motivation for Kristensen comes from her grandmothers and mother, all of whom had breast cancer. One grandmother didn’t survive.

“That definitely shaped my determination,” she said.

“I was already really sure of being a doctor, and when I went with my mom to different appointments, they had the idea of really helping her (beyond) just treating the cancer. That was something good for me to pick up on.”

Today, the sacrifices are less physical. Kristensen missed a midterm in biochemistry while on a recent road trip for soccer, so per her college’s policy, her coach proctored the makeup exam in the conference room where her team was staying. When her teammates are done studying, she’s usually the one still going. “I am someone who doesn’t give up,” she said.

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and a former golf student-athlete at Duke.