As Kelleigh Gustafson ’18 sat in Saint Peter’s Square on a beautiful spring morning, she never imagined she would come face to face with Pope Francis. She traveled to Vatican City, along with thousands of other people, simply to take part in a general audience with the pontiff. She was surprised when a security guard looked at her ticket and ushered her to the front of the enormous crowd, just a few feet away from where the pope would proclaim the Gospel and offer a homily. Her surprise turned to shock after Pope Francis finished speaking and made his way to the aisle where Kelleigh had been praying. She watched in disbelief as he began greeting and blessing people one at a time. When the pontiff reached her, she was at a loss for words, so she did the only thing she could: She let her smile speak for her.
“I couldn’t say anything,” Kelleigh recalled. “I was just completely awestruck.”
Faith plays a major role in Kelleigh’s life. She was just 4 years old when she was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting the arteries and veins, most often in the brain or spine. It is a life-threatening condition that over time reduces blood flow to the affected area. Since her diagnosis, Kelleigh has undergone more than 60 surgeries to treat the condition under the care of a doctor in Milwaukee, Wis., who is aggressively researching AVM. Her belief in a higher power helped her to navigate her way through those challenges.
It also inspired her to found Kelleigh’s Cause, an organization whose aim is to raise awareness of AVM and funds to research the disease. Kelleigh has shared her story publicly at Catholic high schools, her family’s parish, St. Ann’s in Manlius, N.Y., and on a radio program hosted by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York. To date, Kelleigh’s Cause has raised more than $100,000 to help fight AVM. The last time Kelleigh was in Milwaukee, she toured the research facility at the Medical College of Wisconsin that the charity helps to support and met the research fellow who is studying AVM with the hope of identifying a drug that can be used to treat it.
A psychology major on the Heights, Kelleigh had been looking forward to spending two weeks in Italy with her parents, Dan and Lori, and siblings, Danny, Christopher and Kaelyn. It was Cardinal Dolan, who has remained close to the Gustafsons, who encouraged Kelleigh to see if she could be granted a general audience with the pope. She reached out to Bishop Robert Cunningham of the Diocese of Syracuse who contacted officials at the Vatican on her behalf. The Gustafsons did not realize that they had been made aware of Kelleigh’s story, which made the moment that she was blessed by Pope Francis even more meaningful.
Following her audience with the pope, Kelleigh rejoined her family members, who were seated in a different section of St. Peter’s Square. She immediately hugged her mother, who described the moment as “absolutely beautiful.” Eventually Kelleigh had an opportunity to read the English translation of the pontiff’s homily, which he delivered in Italian. When she did she felt as if he was speaking directly to her with his message of hope, optimism and resilience.
“It made me believe that everything my family and I have been through and what we are working to accomplish through Kelleigh’s Cause has been worth it,” she said. “We have an end goal and we can achieve it. Pope Francis’ message has given me a new sense of determination.”
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