Alex Kiesling: Coming Full Circle

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August 20, 2019
Alex Kiesling

Alex Kiesling remembers the first time she visited the hospital at 10 years old: to visit her best friend who was being treated for cancer at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. She was shocked to see so many sick children, and, without hesitation, decided that she was going to become a doctor.

Now, Kiesling is a second-year medical student at OHSU, returning to where her journey and drive to become a doctor began.

A rising philanthropist

Facing the reality of death at such a young age can feel isolating. When Kiesling lost her best friend to cancer, it was the first time she had to process such grief.

“No one my age really understood what it was like to lose a friend,” Kiesling said. “I kept thinking, ‘No one else should have to go through this. I don’t want anyone else’s friend, brother, sister or child to not make it. I don’t want anyone else to feel the way I feel right now.’

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“In the months following, I asked myself: What can I do with this feeling? One reaction was to raise money because it’s concrete; something I can do now. The other was to become a doctor.”

Being 10 years old, the possibility of medical school was too far off into the future. So, she focused on philanthropy. That Christmas, Kiesling asked for donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society instead of presents.

“My goal was to raise as much money as possible so more research could be done, and more people could be helped.”

Her passion for philanthropy continued through middle school. She was a top fundraiser for Relay for Life in her hometown of Ashland, Oregon; she wrote donation letters; she held bake sales at local grocery stores; and she sold tickets for a yearly Peruvian benefit dinner.

By the end of middle school, Kiesling had raised more than $10,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the American Cancer Society.

“At this point, I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but I also knew I had a long way to go,” she said. “My goal was to raise as much money as possible so more research could be done, and more people could be helped.”

Discovering her hero

After her first donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Kiesling was recognized for her fundraising efforts by the Oregon chapter. This visit was where she first learned about Brian Druker, MD, director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, and his life-saving drug Gleevec.

“When Dr. Druker first started his research, people had a hard time believing it could work,” she said. “But he kept persisting. That was really inspiring. I thought it was amazing that he never gave up.”

In September, Kiesling met her hero for the first time.

A few years later, Kiesling was asked to write about people who inspire her for a school project. She was quick to name Dr. Druker as one of her heroes. With her mother’s encouragement, she emailed him a few interview questions. “I wasn’t expecting him to respond, but he did. I think that speaks so much to the type of person he is,” she said.

Since then, Kiesling has followed Dr. Druker’s career, sharing news and research articles back and forth with her mom through the years.

“The work he’s done has made me feel engaged in medicine. It’s something that’s kept me interested and reminded me why I’m doing this and how I got here,” she said.

Following her dream

When it was time to choose a college, Kiesling wanted an adventure. She headed across the country to attend Tufts University in Boston. She wanted to experience big-city life on the East Coast and run competitively.

Kiesling earned a dual bachelor’s and Master of Public Health degree. With the support of her mom, her unwavering desire to honor her late friend and inspiration from Dr. Druker, Kiesling then pursued medical school.

She was accepted to several medical schools, including OHSU.

“When I was applying, OHSU was my dream school. It’s where my whole journey began,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could get in, but when I did, I said to my mom, ‘How could I not go there?’ Not only does it have a good reputation, but OHSU is very meaningful to me and my family.”

Nearly 15 years after she first set foot on the OHSU campus, Kiesling returned to begin her journey of becoming a physician.

Alex Kiesling

When she put on her white coat for the first time, she was excited, yet the amount of responsibility that came with the jacket felt daunting. Since the ceremony, she’s learned to adjust: “In medicine, there are so many unpredictable things that I’ve had to learn how to adapt and feel comfortable with uncertainty,” she said.

Kiesling’s passion for philanthropy lives on in medical school, too. She’s become a mentor for a first-year student at OHSU and a pre-med student at Portland State University.

“People who are further along in their training — older students, residents and attendings — are generously willing to help me get involved both clinically and in research or extracurricular activities,” she said. “It makes me want to give back to students who are not as far along this training path.”

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