It would be easy to allow Karen’s story to fall through the cracks of life and disappear for eternity. However, that is not the way Karen viewed life or is it the way she raised her children to tackle the challenges in their lives. If Karen came into your life in the last few years you certainly would have walked away with an impression of a person who is beautiful, effervescent, loved life, showed tremendous knowledge in her field and was a incredible advocate for those she cared for…she sparkled. Once you heard that her life passed in the grips of one of the most devastating cancers known to man, melanoma, undoubtedly, you would have felt exceptional compassion for her.
To let Karen’s story pass on the notion that Karen’s life was in some measure tragic would be a tragedy in itself. We prefer to view Karen’s story as triumphant, one that should be told and needs to be remembered. Karen was a survivor of sexual childhood abuse; it is for all of those children who have suffered abuse at the hands of a trusting guardian, casual acquaintance or a complete stranger that we tell Karen’s Story. This is not to suggest that the months of battling melanoma was not abject, because it was, frankly, there are no words that adequately comfort those who battle for their lives with cancer, nor are there words that can effectively comfort those who love those who suffer from it…it sucks.
Think about this for a moment, what if you went throughout the majority of your adult life believing that you grew up in a certain way, than, one morning you awaken to realize that you had emotionally blocked out the most horrific sexual child abuse imaginable. How would you react? Would you be able to get out of bed in the morning? Take care of the kids?
What about that childhood? Why didn’t someone come to Karen’s rescue? How come someone did not know or did they and could not help? How did Karen survive? Many questions and not enough answers. What are absolute are the abusive experiences Karen endured…have no doubt. I have spent too many hours as husband and friend listening to the details. I have been an integral part of Karen’s journey of discovery, realization and ultimately acceptance and healing. And from the detail of the experiences and description of the scenes and timing Karen left no doubt that the abuse was real. That being said, our family will not allow the details of Karen’s childhood abuse to be the story..
The theme of Karen’s story and life is rising above her horrific circumstances to be an outstanding medical practitioner, and loving mother, friend, and nurse. And beyond, how she has inspired us to continue her good work because of who she was as a person and in a very modest way, how Karen “Lights up the room” for the many she cared for who suffered from a variety types of cancer diseases, including the one that took her from us.
Karen grew up in Titusville, New Jersey in a house a stone’s throw from Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal and the Delaware River. This community is an idyllic setting to grow up, plenty of outdoor living and beautiful vistas to dream away your youth. At an early age, Karen was drawn to the D&R Canal to fish with her grandfather, play with her friends or to simply run along. She attended school in the Hopewell Valley Regional School district and recalled very favorably her experiences at the Titusville Elementary School and Bear Tavern Elementary School. Still today, the Titusville school has engraved stone signs over the doorways for girls and boy’s entrances…Karen always found humor in this.
An honors student graduate at Hopewell Valley High School in Pennington, NJ, Karen was always attentive to her academic study. Following high school, Karen attended and graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Bridgeport with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and a minor in Psychology. From the moment I met Karen in the summer of 1978, there was never any doubt that Karen was doing what she wanted to do and was good at it. She always was willing to take on additional challenges as she rose in leadership roles throughout her career.
Karen’s nursing career began at Mercer Medical Hospital in Trenton with a stint at Helene Fuld Medical Center. Karen commenced a long association with as it is now known; The University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP). Her first position at UMCP was as a Nursing Care Coordinator, Rehabilitation Unit Merwick III in 1982; then, Medicaid & Long Term Care Supervisor/Home Health Aide Coordinator. In 1989, Karen would initiate her career in oncology as an Oncology Nurse working for John Baumann, M.D. and Ed Soffen, M.D. both radiation oncologists who practiced at the UMCP. As a result of mutual respect, the practice named Karen as Head Oncology Nurse where Karen thrived. Karen had the utmost respect for the knowledge, caring, professionalism and compassion of the doctors and staff she worked with…they were family to her.
Along the way, Karen qualified as a Certified Oncology Nurse (OCN) with Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification and a Basic Life Support (BLS) Instructor from the American Heart Association. For a period of near two years, Karen took over the responsibility of Cancer Program Manager for UMCP where she had significant impact on the building of a strong core cancer program and outreach. Returning to the place she loved in September of 2007, Karen would continue her career at Princeton Radiation Oncology as a Head Oncology Nurse where she was very active with community outreach, patient support group development and patient care. For Karen, it was all about caring for the patient, this is where Karen thrived and wanted to be. She liked to “touch the people” not the paper.
One of the personal practices Karen started was to wear an angel pin on the lapel of her lab coat and during various noteworthy Holidays she would garner her lapel with ornamental pins. Overtime, patients began to notice this and started to bring her pins to wear. For Karen, this was a badge of honor; each time she would change out her lab coat for a fresh one Karen would methodically take and replace each pin on the new lab coat. Over time, Karen had more pins given her then lapel space to accommodate them; nonetheless, this did not stop Karen from taking the care to recognize those she has served by honoring them with placement of their pin on her lapel. Karen continued this practice until her final day of work.
Because the lab coat and placement of pins was significant in Karen’s life we wanted to show respect for this commitment at her funeral service. When we retrieved the lab coat, I took the time to inspect the pockets for valuables; one of the pockets had a nurse’s pocket protector in it which was common. What was not common were the two scraps of paper that were written by Karen. Among the various pens, business cards and post it notes on two separate pieces of paper were the directions for accessing a patient data base and behind this were the user name and password. Now, throughout Karen’s life, I could bet on her password being some combination of the phrases, Running or love running, so, you might guess that this would be similar. Now, understand that this password was set-up within the last two weeks she worked…the password she chose was Paradise4me. Karen had an exceptionally strong faith; I believe this was God’s way of preparing her for the months to come.
We met through mutual friends in August of 1978. From the time we met we were inseparable…it just worked this way. Karen was entering her senior year of college and I had just graduated from Bryant College. Without too many details, we had fun. The fun led to a commitment and we were married on November 11, 1980.
Athletics were a foundation of the Rust family. We are blessed with two exceptional kids, yes still kids, both excelled academically and athletically with an remarkably strong faith which is Karen’s design. Both are graduates of Hopewell Valley Regional High School graduating with honors, the same high school where Karen graduated, so, it had special meaning for Karen to see them both excel.
Our daughter, Tiffany, is an exceptional athlete and runner. With all of the success Tiffany had in athletics nothing touched her as much as running. It came late in her scholastic career but when it arrived it came with a vengeance. For all of her efforts, she was named the Trenton, New Jersey area’s Female Athlete of the Year by the Trenton Times and she was recognized all County, Area and State first team. Heavily recruited in high school Tiffany went on to compete at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. And, Karen loved it…while Karen did not run competitively, secretly, she wished she had. Karen was Tiffany’s biggest fan and supporter; a more supportive cheerleader Tiffany could not have found. Even at times seeking and finding alternative homeopathic remedies for ailing legs, but, mostly it was instilling the faith and a will to do her best. Today, Tiffany is a sixth grade teacher at Canyon Crest Elementary School in Provo Utah.
Likewise, Brandon, our son, is an exceptional athlete and student. Make no mistake that Brandon as well could not have had a bigger fan than his Mother. Brandon excelled in soccer being recognized as All-State Group II, All Area and conference player as a midfielder while at Hopewell Valley. He also was an all conference golfer. Brandon went on to Emory University in Atlanta Georgia and was recognized as an ESPN All Academic South player his junior and senior years. Probably the best example of instilling faith and confidence in our children was demonstrated during Brandon’s final game of his senior season at Emory; the game was held at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh PA. Brandon suffered some season long injuries to his knee and was really struggling to compete in his last game. Just prior to the game beginning and without notice, Karen gets up from the stands and starts a walk around the field toward the Emory teams bench. Brandon sees Karen coming toward the team and walks to meet his mother on the sidelines. I notice Karen bend over and rub his knees. When she returned I asked what she did and she mentioned that she was given a bottle of holy water blessed by the Pope from a patient; Karen went over to rub the holy water on Brandon’s knee to help him through the game. While Brandon was not able to finish the game…I know that he could not have felt a greater sense of love and pride in having a Mama like Karen who was willing to instill a strong faith in her son. Today, Brandon is a trader at Valhalla Advisers, a hedge fund, in Jersey City, NJ and is “living the life” in an apartment in Manhattan.
Tiffany’s success as a runner became a springboard for Karen’s passion. While Karen ran in numerous races there was more to it then this for Karen. Running was her sanctuary. The more she ran the better she felt that prompted even longer runs…Karen had a dream of running the NYC Marathon. One of her favorite places in the world was the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath both in Princeton and in Titusville, NJ. But it was in Titusville where she felt at home. The canal towpath is the perfect condition for running and is quite beautiful. It was here where it began with her grandfather, Stewart, and it was the place where Karen and I would spend endless Saturday morning’s training for half marathons.
You have to understand, I have been around athletes my entire life and I have never seen anyone happier to be running than Karen, thus, “my happy runner”. There was never a time while she was running that she was not a peace. The photo you see on the home page of this website was taken soon after finishing a long run; Karen wanted to make sure that the woman from the cancer support group saw that she was wearing the hat for them, so this prompted me to take the picture. You see for as photogenic as Karen was she despised having her picture taken. For this photo produced a result that I could not have been happier; I felt that this photo was the best photo of Karen ever taken…it was natural it was free. The photo was taken in October of 2008 just prior to our running the Philadelphia Half Marathon for our 28th wedding anniversary.
Our routine was simple. We would park in the lot near the Washington Crossing Bridge. From there we would walk, for 15 minutes heading north toward Lambertville, the distances would vary based on the training schedule we needed to maintain to build endurance to finish the races. Our roles were clear, Karen was the coach and I was the water-boy. Karen would set the schedules and I would simply ask how long. I wore the water belt and would double back to meet Karen at agreed upon intervals for hydration.
On one day, when I was doubling back for our water break, I noticed Karen veering off of the tow path and touching a bench. Along the D&R Canal are placed memorial benches. Upon questioning Karen about what she was doing she went on to tell me that she would say a prayer for each person who had a bench dedicated in their memory. This touched me then and still does…we will do the same for Karen.
Karen had an exceptionally strong belief in the presence and power of angels. You can trace Karen’s spiritual journey to the realization that what had happened to her as a child. Realizing and coping are two different states of mind and it was at the formative stage of discovery where Karen believed that the Angels in her life understood her and helped her to make it through. To this day, we have three rather sizable angel figurines that hover over our foyer, she referred to them as her Nanny and Pop-pop (maternal grandmother and grandfather) and Aunt Sally who are all in heaven with Karen. Karen credits them with providing the love and guidance in childhood that helped her to maintain her sanity.
Understand that when you become aware of such a horrific experience later in life, as in the case with Karen, it is like going through it for the first time. You do not heal from this over night or ever…you simply learn to cope. Along the way, Karen surrounded herself and our family with Angels. Collecting of angels was a passion and a comfort for Karen…she wanted all of us to have someone looking over us…everywhere every day. The belief in Angels carried to Karen’s profession as well, with the use of Angels to help with healing. It gave Karen the strength to make it through some very challenging times and she knows that Angels helped many of her patients survive and thrive.
What became apparent to me was that the combination of Karen’s effervescent personality and strong faith is what became so endearing about her. As she lie in bed battling the melanoma cancer the medical staff at the hospital, professional colleagues and friends would come to visit Karen. During these visits it was as if Karen was doing the comforting…just and indelible display of strength and faith. It was at this time that Karen’s belief in angels took a twist in perspective for me…I believe that the true Angel is Karen. She came into her patient’s life when they needed her most and departed our mortal life leaving all of us who spent time with her knowing that we were blessed to know an Angel.