‘A Family of Warriors’

By Barbara Gutierrez

‘A Family of Warriors’

By Barbara Gutierrez
The Casanas family has been through difficult health challenges but will celebrate three graduates on Commencement Day.

Karina Casanas will receive a very special Mother’s Day gift this year thanks, in part, to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System.

She will get to cheer as her three daughters cross the stage to receive their bachelor's degrees during UM Commencement exercises on May 11.

Her 24-year-old twins, Kristen and Kimberly, are both graduating with a Bachelor of Science, with majors in history and  minors in English and entrepreneurship. Her oldest daughter, Kaitlyn, 25, will receive a Bachelor of Science in Education with a major in elementary/special education.   

“If you offered me a million dollars or the chance to see my daughters graduate, I would choose this moment,” Casanas said while struggling through tears.

A Bascom Palmer Eye Institute employee for the past 21 years, Casanas was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer eight years ago. Her daughters were all in their early teens.  

The family was already dealing with another major health concern; Casanas’s husband, Ramiro, had been fighting degenerative heart disease and had open-heart surgery. Last year, he went into congestive heart failure. Casanas credits her husband’s survival to treatment he received from cardiologists at UHealth.

“The girls grew up thinking that their father would die on them,” said Casanas. “But then I come down with cancer.”

Casanas was treated at Sylvester by Dr. Marc Lippman, a renowned medical oncologist and researcher specializing in breast cancer. She underwent a double radical mastectomy, followed by six years of chemotherapy. She continued to work, pushing herself so that she could be a provider for the family. Her husband had to stop working due to his weakened condition. The couple’s biggest dream was to see their daughters graduate from UM, she said. And they will be legacy graduates. Ramiro received his M.B.A. from UM in 2000.

“It has been a horrible ride,” said Casanas. “But our faith helped us.”

During that time, Kaitlyn took over many of the household chores while also taking classes at UM. She kept a close eye on her sisters, making sure that they continued their studies and maintained a healthy diet. She turned into a “mama bear,” said her mother.

The sisters went through a very difficult emotional ride as Kaitlyn developed Crohn’s disease and had to receive infusion treatments, which delayed her education by a year. However, they persevered and are all grateful for the support they received from their professors and mentors at the U.

“When my father almost passed away last spring term, I could no longer even imagine myself nor my sisters walking down graduation without my father sitting there with the biggest smile on his face,” Kaitlyn said.

“The support and love I received from my professors at the School of Education and Human Development allowed me to persevere and fall more in love with my career path.”

One of those professors, Shawn Post-Klauber, thinks Kaitlyn is an outstanding student who had to struggle with her parents' illnesses but was able to find her calling.

“Kaitlyn not only demonstrated the knowledge and proficiencies (of her courses), but developed a true empathy and talent for her teaching,” said Post-Klauber.

Another mentor was Rebecca MacMillan Fox, who guided the girls and steadied them during difficult times. Fox was working as former UM President Donna E. Shalala’s chief of staff and had met Karina Casanas first and then the girls.

Fox was instrumental in helping Kaitlyn find her passion in academic studies, since she had tried to study nursing but felt it was not for her. After many discussions, Fox asked Kaitlyn, “What do you love?”

Kaitlyn answered that she really loved teaching Sunday school at her church. That led her to the School of Education and Human Development (SEHD).

“Kaitlyn has developed an expertise in special needs education,” said Fox. ”When she discovered intellectual content that engaged her, she persevered and just became good at it.”          

During UM’s undergraduate Commencement ceremonies, all three Casanas girls will walk the stage together to receive their diplomas during the SEHD graduation. Their family will sit in a special suite at the Watsco Center, where they will be joined by Casanas’ boss, Michael Gittelman, chief executive officer of UM Hospitals and Clinics, who was a great supporter of the family throughout their ordeal.

There will be cheering and tears, but as Kaitlyn describes them: “We are a family of warriors.”