By Robb Murray

Kelsie Havemeier’s seizures began when she was 9.

They’d start at the back of her neck and pull her head back and slightly to the side. She’d stay locked in that position while her eyes fluttered and her body twitched. Her mother would wrap Kelsie up in her arms and hold her for several minutes — hold her for as long as she needed to, until it was over.

When Kelsie’s seizures began happening more frequently, her mom sought medical help.
The first doctor said it was possibly a growth spurt.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Kelsie Havemeier in her home gallery.
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Kelsie Havemeier in her home gallery.

“I was more than ready to accept that answer,” said Kelsie’s mom, Jessi Havemeier. “But it was very clear as they kept happening that that was not what it was.”

They were all looking at the screen of my daughter’s brain and I was like, ‘Oh no … Something’s wrong.’ Jessi Havemeier

Jessi booked an appointment with a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. And while Kelsi laid still on the bed of the MRI machine, Jessi watched a technician look at the screen showing MRI results. Soon that technician was joined by another. And another. When a physician arrived, Jessi’s heart sank.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

“They were all looking at the screen of my daughter’s brain and I was like, ‘Oh no … Something’s wrong,'” she remembered.

When Kelsie’s MRI was complete, the medical experts told Jessi to wait for a call from their neurologist. Thirty minutes later, after sending Kelsie away with her grandfather, Jessi took the call in a changing room near the MRI lab. The doctor told her Kelsie had a large tumor in her brain.

She wept.

“I kind of got it all out in there,” Jessi said, “and returned back to Kelsie with as strong a face as I could.”

Now the good news: Surgery went well, surgeons successfully excised the tumor from Kelsie’s skull and today she is a happy, healthy 10-year-old girl with a heckuva story to tell. And in the downtime during recovery, she has amassed an impressive pile of artwork, much of which now adorns the walls of her home gallery. A few of her pieces are currently on display now through Sunday at the 410 Project. Kelsie’s pieces are part of the 410’s annual Halloween Exhibition. (See story breakout.)

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

A long recovery

While the outcome was positive, Kelsie has endured a long recovery since her Sept. 11, 2019 surgery.

She underwent a craniectomy where surgeons, using GPS-enabled technology, delicately removed the tumor. But because skulls heal slowly, Kelsie couldn’t live the normal running-around-outside kind of life most 9-year-olds live. She couldn’t ride bikes, couldn’t go horseback riding. And when she was allowed to return to school, she wasn’t allowed to participate in recess.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

For many kids, these restrictions would be torture. But it turns out Kelsie’s got another passion that filled the void.

Ever since she was two or three years old, Kelsie has shown an aptitude for art. When most children were drawing stick figures, her mother said, Kelsie was drawing proportionally correct figures with fingers and toes. When she colored, she understood immediately the notion of staying inside the lines. She instinctively understood the nuances of choosing the right colors. And she loved coloring, drawing and painting.

When we look at [Keslie’s] work, we might just see paint, but knowing her personal story hopefully sparks a form of arts advocacy within the viewer, that creativity is a vital thing for us all. Dana Sikkila

Dana Sikkila, executive director of the 410 Project, said Kelsie’s work is outstanding.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

“Her acrylic painting of a black cat and pumpkin is the perfect mood of Halloween and is done with such technical skill,” Sikkila said. “Then knowing Kelsie’s background and how art has played a role in that only gives the piece more appreciation. When we look at her work, we might just see paint, but knowing her personal story hopefully sparks a form of arts advocacy within the viewer, that creativity is a vital thing for us all.”

Kelsie said there were days when, because of the restrictions on her activity, there was nothing else to do but paint. And think.

Sometimes she thought about her friends, and how she missed being back at Immanuel Lutheran School. When she finally got to go back, she said, “I was just really excited to see my friends.”

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

There were months, though, where painting was her focus, and the gallery room in her home is evidence of a highly prolific and creative period.

Smiling narwhals and llamas explode with color. A mermaid with dozens of intricate, bubble-like polka dots across her fin. A psychedelic van with a peace symbol, rainbow swirls and black-and-white paisleys. A closeup image of a cat’s face, its eyes kiwi green, its fur a collection of blue, yellow, orange, purple, teal and pink. A little girl holding an umbrella, safe under streams of multi-colored rain. And in the corner, the oldest occupant of the gallery walls: a heart with two handprints inside — Mom’s and hers. She painted it when she was five.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

A hopeful future

Though Kelsie will need annual MRIs for a while to see of anything is amiss inside her skull, she’s mostly out of the woods.

It all seems so far away from the day her mother told her about the tumor and that she’d need to undergo a scary procedure to get it out. That morning, she’d slept on the drive to their first appointment at Children’s Hospital. It was just a few days after that fateful MRI.

Photo by Jessi Havemeier - Painting by Kelsie Havemeier
Photo by Jessi Havemeier – Painting by Kelsie Havemeier

“I woke up in the car, and then Mom told me …” she said, remembering that day. She paused, then turned her head away, laying it down on her mom’s shoulder as she began to cry.

“It’s okay,” Mom said. “It’s okay. You don’t have to answer. It’s still pretty fresh. It was scary. You did so good that day. Everybody was so proud of you.”

Jessi held her daughter, held her as long as she needed to, just as she’d done in the car the day before they walked into the hospital to meet the biggest challenge of their lives, together as a team, together as best friends.

Author

  • Robb Murray

    has been a journalist for 25 years. A 1995 graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, Robb lives in North Mankato.

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