Meet Katherine Nelson and her winning essay “Breathe”

With her stunning piece, “Breathe,” Katherine is the third place winner in this year’s Andre Sobel Award for teen survivors of catastrophic illness.

Katherine is a sophomore at Hollins University in Virginia.  She loves art, culture and traveling. A political Science major, Katherine is double minoring in philosophy and music. Next year she will be studying in London and Rome and after graduation, plans on law school to become an entertainment attorney so that she can continue to work with musicians and other creative people.  She loves reading good books, laughing, making people laugh and telling stories.  Says Katherine,  “I am so grateful to the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation to let {my story} inspire other people.”

Katherine’s father Glen also submitted a companion “Letter I Wish I had Received,” which follows Katherine’s Letter. 



The Letter I Wish I had Received from 

a Friend or Relative When I was Ill 


I’m writing you this letter because I know you’re a doer. You don’t like sitting around , waiting for something to happen. You don’t like asking for help, even when you need it. And you do not like feeling helpless. This is not a letter of advice, not really. This is a way to help you, when faced with what might appear to be a giant problem, turn
it into a puzzle you can solve with a cool head.

Inhale. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Become aware of every part of your body. What hurts? What doesn’t? Take another deep breath. Focus on your mind. Acknowledge your problems: What is troubling you right at this moment? What is making you stressed at this moment? Now acknowledge the good: What are you thankful for in this moment? Take one more deep breath and open your eyes.

All matter is infinitely divisible into parts. If you take a substance and break it and tear it apart over and over you still have more things to divide. So sometimes, that’s how you need to solve a problem. Break it down until it’s small enough to deal with, and then you move on.

It’s easy to breathe.

There will be people around who will say ambiguous things like “you just need to fight” or “you’re doing such a good job.” But they’re not talking to you, not really. They think that ambiguity can benefit you in the long run, that cut-and-pasted trademarked words of inspiration are helpful. They don’t know that sickness isn’t cured by hope, they don’t know that survival doesn’t always mean holding up a sign that says “I beat it,” they don’t know that living is hard, especially when that life is in jeopardy.

Just breathe.

Make every single choice you a step towards the finish line. Step one: breathe in and out. Step two: open your eyes. Step three: touch my finger, touch your nose. Step four: drink a sip of water. Step five: sit up. Step seven: take your pills, swallow. Step eight: rest. Step nine: feet off the bed. Step ten: take a step. End of day one. Day two: begin again.

Did you remember to breathe?

The only person who can save you, in the end, is yourself. Doctors will fix your body and stitch it up, then save you from physical pain. Your family will give you a place to rest, tell you they love you and are proud of your progress, and comfort you with kisses and loving arms. Friends will make you laugh, tell stories and share information you missed, and act as if nothing ever happened. This will help, but do not take it for granted. These are gifts given by those who care. It is up to you to glue them all together and make yourself whole again.

Breathe, rest, cry, shout, talk, laugh. Push out all the negative energy you possibly can, and either turn it into positive energy or come to terms with its existence. Being whole doesn’t mean being flawless. Even superheroes have shortcomings. Do not focus on being “normal” or “perfect,” focus on becoming you again.

Stop, take a moment to breathe.

I’m writing this letter to you so that you won’t waste away, or become a romanticized version of an illness that a writer can sell to teenage girls as a tragic love story. I’m trying to tell you that you are more than the illness you have. Don’t you dare let it consume you! Don’t let that unseen foe build itself up in waves until it comes crashing down on you. With every breath you take, make that wave smaller until it’s something you can deal with. Step by step, day by day, overcome each problem as it comes to you, even if that means just getting through the day.

Start with an intake of air.



Katherine’s father, Glen Nelson responds:

When Katherine was in the NYU Hospital recovering from her second brain tumor surgery, we received a letter from the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. At the time, it was a letter we cherished although he is someone we have never met, and he only heard about our family ordeal through a staff member who is a family friend. Still, the short, hand-written note on his personal stationary lifted us up. Its sentiment was briefly stated—he acknowledged our hardship and wished that he had a magic wand he could wave over Katherine’s head to make her better—but it was a symbol that outside of the chaos of the hospital, people were thinking of us and wished us well, even the leaders of the nation.

Back then, it was the letter I most wanted, and I’m grateful to have it. Even now, whenever I see the name Bloomberg, I have warm feelings.

With a decade of distance now, however, the letter I most would have wanted to receive from a friend or relative would have been slightly different. It would be slightly more practical and written with an eye on future perspective, something like this:

Dear Family,
I love you. And what does that mean?
Simply this: that whatever happens to you as a consequence of your hospital experience, I will be there for you. If there is anything comforting that I can say, the most heartfelt is boileddown to an expression of that love.
The future will bring what it brings. You may feel like you are ready to explode with a firework of emotions of fear and uncertainty. You may think that you can’t stand it one more hour. And you’re probably right. This kind of experience is unsustainable. That’s a good thing. One way or another it will all be resolved. And you will be left with whatever you are fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to be given.
Like an emotional earthquake, you will adapt to the lingering tremors of the disaster. I will be there to help you. You will find solid ground again.

The letter we received from a kind mayor of the largest city in America did its job at the time. It took us out of a spiral that focused solely on doctors, tests, and second-by-second monitors. Still, the letter I wish we had received would have been a pledge of ongoing, unwavering, unstinting love.