|Elizabeth Kester will test the limits of her endurance, in honor of her niece,
Sarah Heath, during this year's Pan-Mass Challenge.
Union Leader Correspondent
|Elizabeth Kester with her niece, Sarah Heath, during a
Pedal Partner gathering at Fenway Park.
Elizabeth Kester of Londonderry has been inspired by her 14-year-old niece, Sarah Heath, a cancer survivor.
While Kester is no athlete, she knew she had to do something to match Sarah’s will to live when she fought her way back from acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2007. Kester wanted to find a way to push her own body to the edge of her comfort zone, a symbolic nod to all that Sarah had endured. Kester asked her husband, Eric, for a bike for Christmas. Her goal was to ride in this year’s Pan-Massachusetts Challenge Bike-a-Thon, which benefits the Jimmy Fund of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
A snowy winter and wobbly legs have made training tougher than expected, but her plan is to pedal the route that covers 84 grueling miles, raising $3,000 for cancer research.
“I don’t know what possessed me. I’m not an avid cyclist. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years. But I decided a few years ago to choose one big effort and do something that was bigger than me, in my life,” said Kester.
She’s sort of worked her way up to being ready for the bike marathon that will take her from Wellesley to Bourne. While her niece was still recovering from chemo, Kester and her sister Melissa Heath — Sarah’s mom — did the Susan G. Komen Three-Day for a Cure walk. “Torturous but awesome, to be caught up in the energy,” Kester said of the 60-mile bonding experience.
The next year they did a Dana Farber fundraising marathon.“Sarah taught us to never give up, to never give in and to always do something good, despite the difficulties that may surround you,” said Kester, a registered nurse who works in labor and delivery at The Mom’s Place at Catholic Medical Center.
In the context of her work she is confounded daily by the miracle of birth and the joys of motherhood. Another reason her niece’s cancer diagnosis at the age of 10 made no sense in her world.
“It was one of those moments that truly does change your life. Melissa is my only sister. Sarah is my sister’s oldest child — she was pregnant with Sarah when my husband and I first met. Sarah was our flower girl when we got married. She was the closest to a daughter that we could have had, until we had a daughter of our own. She’s always been an intimate part of our lives. When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it’s like someone reaches into your chest and pulls something out,” Kester said.
She was still in nursing school when Sarah was diagnosed. But she put her own life on the back burner, making sure she was on call so that whenever her sister needed someone to lean on, she was there.
“Elizabeth was my rock,” said Heath, who said it was Kester who updated the Internet-based CarePages that let everyone know Sarah’s progress during treatment at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
“I was overwhelmed with everything that was going on with Sarah, and so Elizabeth took care of a lot of the day-today stuff. And she was in her last year of nursing school at the time, something I can really appreciate now,” said Heath, who since then, gave up her day job for nursing school, following in her sister’s footsteps. “Cancer changes your perspective on what’s important. Honestly, some kids we met through Sarah’s journey, unfortunately, their outcome wasn’t as good. You learn that for some, the only enjoyment they get to have while they’re struggling through cancer treatment is the chance to go to camp, or Make-A-Wish, before they are gone — all things that are made possible through fundraisers, like the Pan-Mass,” Heath said. “I vowed that if I could be there to help another parent through the difficult times, I would — and that’s something I hope I can do, as a nurse.”
Heath said many family members of cancer survivors not only want to participate in fundraisers but almost feel they have to, as a way of working through the stress and turmoil wrought by the disease.
“What my sister is doing — what we’re all doing — is part of the healing process. By learning how to give back, you learn how to pay it forward,” Heath said.
Kester and her husband, Eric, are hosting a fundraising Retro Rock the ‘80s Party June 3 at 7 p.m. at Jillian’s in Manchester to help reach the $3,000 fundraising goal.
“The one thing I really feel good about is that 100 percent of the money raised for the Pan-Mass Challenge goes to the Jimmy Fund, not administrative costs or race jerseys. I like being able to tell people that, and I think it’s part of why it’s so successful,” Kester said. “Their goal this year is to raise $34 million, and I’m just really happy to be part of it.”
For those not quite ready to publicly revisit the 1980s, donations to sponsor Kester can also be made online at www.pmc.org/egifts/EK0062.