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Health Center Administrator Kathy Benson feels support of campus community during recovery

Photo submitted by James Vair.

A slim woman sits in her living room chair. Her home is orderly and clean, at least in the eyes of a college student, but a binder and a Bible sit on the matching ottoman in front of her. Recordings of The Concordia Choir play in the background as she talks about her appreciation for friends, family and Cobbers.

Kathy Benson, Health Center Administrator and campus nurse, has spent the last few weeks at home recovering from surgery due to lung cancer, and she is feeling the massive outpouring of support that is unique to the Concordia community, she said.

“She is committed… compassionate, and caring,” said Cheryl Ross, a nurse practitioner in the Kjos Health Center. “She is Concordia through and through.”

Few people on campus embody the mission or have as deep roots at Concordia as Kathy, who has worked at Concordia for over 40 years and earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology before that. Her four sons went to Concordia, and two of her daughters-in-law were Cobbers. The nine grandkids are future Cobbers, too, if Kathy has any say in the matter.

Kathy first came to Concordia as a freshman music major the fall of 1960, but quickly realized it was not her calling, she said.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like it,” she said. “I decided… I had to be the audience, and that’s worked.”

Kathy would eventually tell her four sons that if anything ever happened to her, they were to play her recordings of The Concordia Choir, regardless of her condition. The recordings would follow her to Mayo Clinic.

She graduated with plans to be a social worker, but admitted that little girls had dreams of being teachers and nurses when she was young, and she was no exception. Kathy graduated from Fairview Hospital School of Nursing and got married a few years later.

They returned to Moorhead, and Kathy became the hall director in East Complex for two years. When her second child was born, they moved off campus and into a regular house, but that was just the beginning.

“Those two years in East Complex kind of cemented my love for your age group,” she said.

Concordia was looking for another nurse to work part-time in the health center, and Kathy thought it would be a good fit with her two kids, she said. Forty-two years later, she still loves it.

“I don’t even like to call it a job,” she said. “I think it took me a while to consider it a vocation, but that’s what it’s been. Or a calling.”

Kathy is more than a nurse to many students, according to Cheryl Christianson, administrative health information assistant in Kjos Health Center.

“Kids come to her to just talk to her about things,” Christianson said. “They come seeking her out.”

Junior James Vair first met Kathy during orientation week freshman year.

“I was feeling kind of under the weather, probably a mix of both lack of sleep and homesickness,” he said in an email. “So… I stopped by the Health Center and met up with Nurse Kathy. I’ll never forget her smile and kind words!”

Current and former students coming into the Health Center are not the only ones seeking out Kathy, however.

“Her sense of vocation has led her to befriend and support people on this campus who have never been inside the Health Center,” President Dovre said in an email interview. “And because of our respect for her sagacity, she is sought out for advice and counsel by scores of people, myself included.”

Aside from doing administrative work in the Health Center, Kathy accompanies music ensemble on tour. She accompanies The Concordia Choir on tour each year, and she traveled with the Concordia Band to Europe a few years ago, an experience which she called “more than a little bit of heaven.” This year, she was planning on going with the Choir on their South Korean tour, but her health stopped that—the loss of time with students being her “biggest loss” in not going to South Korea.

Kathy finished the Choir’s domestic tour on March 6, and she had an appointment at Mayo Clinic on March 15.

“The memories that were made in those two weeks, both with [students] and with those that I met along the way, have sustained me more than anybody knows,” she said.

Kathy has felt something in her lung for about a year, and though it was previously diagnosed, she wanted to see if there was anything else she should be doing. While at Mayo, she received a new diagnosis: lung cancer. Kathy is not a smoker. The doctor asked her if she could go up a flight of stairs or two.

“I said ‘I just got back from two weeks with 78 kids. I had to carry my own suitcase around. Yes, I can do that,’” she said.

She had surgery on March 23, and the surgeon removed a tumor the size of a large orange, she said. The doctor told her that her lung could have been compensating due to her activity. In the surgery, they removed the bottom half of her left lobe and a wedge out of the upper lobe, but the scariest part was that doctors suspected the tumor was encroaching on her aorta, she said.

“[The surgeon] said ‘if I get in there and there is involvement, I can’t give you a new aorta,” she said.

The day of the surgery, Kathy and “her boys” prayed.

“The first thing I said that morning was ‘this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it,’” she said. “You get on your fighting shoes, and you go for it.”

The surgery was a success, the aorta was not a problem, and that night Kathy updated her own Caringbridge website.

“The diagnosis has been a miracle. ‘All is well,’” she wrote, referencing a closing piece in the 2010 Christmas Concerts performed by all of the choirs and the Concordia Orchestra.

Now, Kathy is working on recovering at home with flowers mailed across the country from a friend, stuffed animals from students, and an over-abundance of bread from loving people trying to tend a nurse and dear friend.

“Sometimes I jokingly say that… the mission statement talks about ‘sending forth people into the world,’ and I feel like I was sent forth,” she said. “I just wasn’t sent forth very far.”


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