Like the lotus flowers she loves to draw, 14-year-old artist Avery Kiehl is slowly blossoming.
Over the last five years, it’s been a struggle to do so, but she’s battled through each obstacle in her path. And she’s had many.
In December 2013, the Peculiar resident was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor that needed to be quickly treated.
From that moment, she and her family learned all about the challenges of treating a craniopharyngioma tumor.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
“From the time she was diagnosed, life changed and everything became a whirlwind,” said Tiffany Kiehl, Avery’s mom.
Less than two weeks after she was diagnosed, the Kiehls traveled to St. Jude’s in Memphis to begin Avery’s treatment. While at St. Jude’s, Avery had surgery to remove the tumor, in addition to numerous medical procedures that were scheduled around the clock.
“Avery couldn’t sleep very well at night,” Tiffany Kiehl said. “We would do art so we could take her to a happy place. Art was the one thing she could do to relax and forget everything else going on around her.”
From her early childhood, Avery enjoyed art as a leisure activity.
“Starting at St. Jude’s, it took on a new meaning for her,” Avery’s mom said.
After three weeks at St. Jude’s, Avery went to the University of Florida in Jacksonville, where she received 30 rounds of radiation during six weeks of treatment.
Both the surgery and radiation caused excessive headaches and made it difficult for Avery to concentrate and do her normal activities.
“She couldn’t even read, or be read to,” Tiffany said. “This was when her art became very beneficial and therapeutic.”
After treatment in Florida, Avery received additional care at St. Jude’s and then returned to Kansas City in April.
Though she was now on home base, Avery’s challenges continued. Weakened by her illness and treatment, intense headaches persisted through 2014.
As she tried to resume her school schedule, Avery and her family were nervous about the future. This type of tumor often comes back.
“It was a tough waiting game,” Tiffany Kiehl said.
While searching Pinterest one afternoon in fall, Avery discovered a cheerful floral work on canvas and was inspired to create her own.
After completing that first flower on canvas, Avery continued to refine her own interpretation of the design, one she still creates today.
In December 2014, 12 months after her initial diagnosis, Avery and her family returned to St. Jude’s for a follow-up visit, uncertain of what they might learn. The news was positive.
“The radiation oncologist told us the tumor was actually shrinking,” Tiffany said. “He was almost more excited than we were. With this good news, we could take a deep breath of relief.”
In a few weeks, Avery will celebrate a five-year-free mark. Her tumor is continuing to shrink and is currently not visible on an MRI.
“Our final six-month visit will be next March,” Tiffany said. “As long as there are no changes, Avery will be considered healed.”
Avery doesn’t take her good fortune for granted, and decided after her first positive report to give back to St. Jude’s in some way. She decided to purchase one of the dedication bricks that pave the hospital’s walkways.
“St. Jude’s helped me through everything,” she said. “They saved my life.”
The cost of the brick — $1,000 — may have seemed too daunting to a then 9-year-old recovering from a life-threatening illness. However, Avery was not deterred.
She made the commitment and her art became the avenue to fulfill it.
In order to raise the money, Avery made and sold dozens of her signature flower petal pictures. After four years dedicated to purchasing a brick, Avery reached her $1,000 goal.
And with improved health came a bit of fame.
During a 2017 St. Jude’s fundraiser held in Kansas City, one of her floral wreaths was auctioned for $5,000. That year, Avery also donated one of her flower petal works to a St. Jude’s Dream House. The work was hung in a room decorated for a little girl, along with a framed story of her journey.
“It’s so amazing and cool that they have my story in a picture frame,” Avery said. “I hope that people will find it inspiring and see that even when times are really tough, they can get through it.”
Most recently, she was selected as a runner-up in the TCAL/Raymore Arts Commission 2018 Student Art Contest.
“Avery has lot of medical issues people don’t see, and she goes through so much every day,” her mom said. “Yet, despite all of it, she has this creative, optimistic outlook.
“She creates beauty out of the darkness, and has shown us that good things can come out of bad.”