INDIANAPOLIS — Caroline Kavanaugh turned 16 in April. Since then she’s earned her driver’s license, competed on the cross-country team and attended Perry Meridian’s homecoming with her boyfriend.
Normal teenage stuff. These are milestones that her mother, Barb, celebrates silently. The normal drone of day-to-day life is like a warm blanket on a winter night. “The simple things,” she said, “are what you appreciate the most.”
Caroline is the middle daughter to Kevin and Barb Kavanaugh. She’s a free spirit – “our hippie child,” Barb jokes – but also a high achiever in the classroom with a number of outside interests. She plays the violin in the school orchestra, earned a spot in the school’s show choir this year and is vice president of her chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society.
Those honors and achievements don’t tell the half of it.
“I’ve never coached a kid like her in 30 years,” said Perry Meridian cross-country coach Mike Armstrong. “She has every reason to quit, cut back a workout or sit out. She blatantly refuses to do that.”
Caroline lives every day with searing headaches, caused by a brain tumor that doctors found seven years ago but can’t fully remove. They tried, in April. After surgery, Caroline temporarily lost use of the left side of her body. She had to reteach herself how to play the violin and – even now – has to remind herself to lift her left foot each stride she takes in a cross-country race.
It was only then, after she missed 23 days of school, that those outside of Caroline’s close circle of family and friends realized she had a brain tumor. Those persistent headaches – she rates them a “6 or 7” every day on a scale of 10 – go unmentioned. Behind those blue eyes, sweet smile and live-and-let-live personality is one of the toughest 16-year-old kids you’ll ever meet.
True toughness. That’s Caroline Kavanaugh.
“She never complains,” her father, Kevin, said. “Her head hurts every day and she fights through it. I’m so proud of her for that.”
* * *
It was 2009. Caroline was a fourth-grader at Glenns Valley Elementary School, just a couple of miles south of the family’s home in the quiet, tree-lined Meridian Woods neighborhood in Perry Township.
Caroline and her younger sister, Anna, then a 5-year-old, developed respiratory infections. Anna quickly recovered. Caroline was unable to shake her headaches, holding her head with both of her hands when she coughed. The Kavanaughs’ family doctor, Stephen Dewey, recommended Caroline come to the office for a sinus X-ray.
“We’re thinking sinus infection, not brain tumor,” Barb Kavanaugh said.
A CT scan and MRI confirmed the worst: There was a slow-growing tumor in the right thalamus of her brain. Medically, it’s called a thalamic astrocytoma. The neurosurgeon, Ronald Young, told the family the tumor was too deep and embedded in Caroline’s brain to perform surgery.
“(The initial reaction) was devastation,” Barb said. “Shock. Dr. Dewey has known our family forever. I could tell he was devastated, too, that he had to sit down and tell a 9-year-old girl that she had a brain tumor.”
Kevin smiles now about a conversation he had with his father, Tim, shortly after finding out about Caroline’s condition. Tim Kavanaugh, who would die later that year after a long battle with thyroid cancer, coached the 1984 Southport team to a third-place finish at the Little League World Series. Kevin, now the strength and conditioning coach at Decatur Central, was one of the stars of that team.
Tim coached with tough love, which is what he gave to Kevin that day when he called about Caroline and asked what he should do.
“ ‘I’d suggest being a man,’ ” Kevin remembers his dad telling him. “My dad was old school. Hardened. But I needed to hear that.”
Caroline, even at 9, was a rock. If any of the Kavanaughs’ three daughters had the mentality to handle such a devastating prognosis, it was probably their middle girl. Shortly after the tumor was discovered, Caroline began a year of chemotherapy treatments to stabilize its growth. She’d leave school on Friday, go through treatment over the weekend and return to school on Monday.
At the hospital one day, a 7-year-old boy was throwing a fit. He didn’t want to go through his chemo treatments. Caroline wrapped her arm around him and said, “We’ve got to get this done today.”
“She was always a trouper about it,” Kevin said. “Chemo was hard. She would become really ill. But even that young, she was so tough.”
Caroline’s teachers and friends at Glenns Valley kept tabs on her. Rebecca Vernon, the music teacher at Glenns Valley, taught all three of the Kavanaugh sisters – Olivia, 18 and a senior at Perry Meridian, Caroline and Anna, 12. Vernon’s son, Embry, a year younger than Caroline, had leukemia at a young age and had gone through chemotherapy. Embry talked to her about his experiences.
“Caroline was – and is – very self-motivated,” Rebecca Vernon said. “In elementary school, she just kept going and working. She didn’t ask for any special favors. She just kept working like she’d done in the past. I knew even then she was one of the most outstanding young people I’d ever met.”
Caroline transitioned from elementary to middle school, then high school. She had an MRI every three months to check on the size of the tumor. Some days were better than others. The headaches continued. But for the better part of five years, life continued as normal as the Kavanaughs could hope for.
Caroline rarely discussed her brain tumor outside of her core group of friends. When she did tell somebody new, she dreaded the reaction.
“People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ ” she said. “They overreact and it gets a little annoying.”
Even Armstrong, her cross-country coach, didn’t know about Caroline’s brain tumor until she’d been with the team an entire year. Barb had included it on Caroline’s physical form, but it wasn’t until the end of Caroline’s freshman season, when she had to miss a practice for a doctor’s appointment, that Barb told him.
Armstrong wasn’t offended or upset. He was amazed.
“You’d never know what she was dealing with,” Armstrong said.
No one necessarily needed to know. Life was cruising along just fine. Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
* * *
An MRI on the day before school of Caroline’s sophomore year (August 2015) showed a growth in the tumor. She underwent six weeks of radiation at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital and still didn’t miss a beat. She ran cross-country throughout the treatments and competed in every meet, improving throughout the season.
Radiation didn’t slow the growth. Dr. Young, though, had developed a new technique to get to the tumor that wasn’t available in 2009. So on Feb. 17, 2016, Caroline went in for a 4½-hour surgery. She was awake the entire time, though she doesn’t remember any of it. For the entire surgery, Caroline’s favorite singer, Taylor Swift, belted out song after song through the speakers.
Young was able to remove about half of the tumor before he was forced to stop due to excessive bleeding. Still, the surgery seemed like a success in the immediate aftermath.
“Surgery was on Wednesday and we figured she’d be back home on Monday,” Barb said.
Caroline lost movement in the left side of her body. For two weeks, she was in intensive care. The worst part, in her estimation, was that she had to wear yellow socks that designated her as a risk to fall down when walking.
“I couldn’t lift off the bed for a while,” she said. “I did a lot of physical therapy in the hospital, though. I was just like, ‘OK, it’s practice. I have to practice.’ ”
Caroline was in the hospital for more than three weeks and missed 23 days of school. During that time in the hospital, her headaches increased in pain. She would hardly eat, forced to use a feeding tube to help her body recuperate.
“It was scary,” Barb said. “She was a mess for two weeks.”
It was the first time her sisters, Olivia and Anna, saw first-hand the gravity of Caroline’s situation. Olivia, ranked in the top 10 in the senior class at Perry Meridian, is a similarly high achiever in and out of the classroom. She plays the cello in the orchestra.
“To see her have to lay there for three weeks, that was really hard,” Olivia said. “She loves to run and play the violin. I know she was frustrated. She couldn’t even do the basic stuff. Things weren’t coming easy for her. But she just kept working through it.”
There were some dark days. When Caroline was able to return home, her parents weren’t sure if she’d make it back to school for the rest of her sophomore year. She could barely walk to the end of the block, let alone run on the cross-country team. But sure enough, she returned to school. She taught the fingers on her left hand to play the violin again. And when it came time to start her junior year of cross-county with summer running, there was Caroline.
“I’m slower,” she said. “My times aren’t nearly as fast. To me, that’s not important. The important thing is I’m still here and I can do it.”
Occasionally, Armstrong will ask Caroline if she wants to scale back a workout. He already knows the answer is “no.” She just does it, day after day.
“It’s really nothing short of amazing,” Armstrong said. “She doesn’t demand attention. The mentality she has, quite honestly, is something you just don’t see that often. That type of toughness is just really rare.”
Where does it come from? Caroline doesn’t know. She’s not out to prove anything to anyone, necessarily, other than to one person – herself.
“It’s just like, if I can get through that (complications from the tumor),” she said, “then I can get through anything.”
* * *
There’s no precise road map to follow when dealing with something as serious as a brain tumor. Jessica Goodman, Caroline’s pediatric oncologist, has been thrilled with Caroline’s progress since the surgery. The latest MRI last month showed no more growth in the tumor.
The headaches continue, but Barb leaves it to Caroline to tell her when they go beyond the “normal” pain.
“It’s horrible that (the headaches) are her normal,” Barb said. “But she’s achieving and living so fully. Hopefully she’ll continue to do that.”
Caroline’s FCA group meets every Thursday morning. At a recent meeting, the lesson was about struggle. Lucas Klipsch, the FCA sponsor and a dean at Perry Meridian, asked Caroline to speak on the subject. It was one of the rare times she’d told her story in a formal setting to an audience.
“Some of those kids knew her story because when she was in the hospital I’d given a lesson about what she was going through,” said Olivia, the president of the FCA chapter. “But it was cool to see her stand up there and give it herself. I hadn’t seen her do that. It was really good.”
She might keep her situation low-key, but there are fingerprints of Caroline’s leadership all over the school. Steve Dawson, the orchestra director at Perry Meridian, named her the concertmaster prior to her surgery. In that role, Caroline essentially served as the liaison between the director and the orchestra.
“That student has to be a very skilled musician. Part of it is leadership and part of it is work ethic.” Dawson said. “It’s a position that I appoint. Caroline fits all of those areas. You’ll never meet a sweeter kid. She’s worked so hard to get back.”
Even in her own home, Caroline is viewed in a different light in the months since her recovery. When Anna’s friends complain about headaches, she sometimes reminds them what he sister is going through. Olivia marvels at her sister’s quiet mental toughness.
“She’s just never needed the attention, so she hasn’t put it out there,” Olivia said. “That’s what’s kind of awesome about it. People don’t know what she’s been through.”
It’s not only about what she’s been through, but where Caroline is going. After high school, she plans to go to college and potentially become a physical therapist to help kids in similar situations. Or maybe even music therapy. One of the turning points in her comeback came when a music therapist would play Taylor Swift songs on the guitar.
“She has so much to offer people after what she went through,” Barb said. “She’d be able to relate to them. We’ll see. I think she’d be awesome at something like that.”
For now, Caroline has a musical to prepare for. Homework to get done. College applications to fill out. Normal stuff. The best stuff.
“I just try to fit in,” Caroline said with a smile.
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.