As a biomedical engineering student at RPI, Kirsten Iwanski is used to dealing in units of measurement like the micron.
That’s the thickness of the coating on the catheters she was measuring as an intern last summer, and the standard comparison, to visualize a millionth of a meter, is that a human hair is 50 microns thick.
There are other easy size comparisons, for things we can’t see.
Besides analyzing biomed equipment as a student, Iwanski is also a hockey player, and if you’ve ever held a puck in your hand, then you know how big the malignant tumor in the frontal lobe of her brain was three years ago.
“[Head coach] Bryan [Vines] said in the [awards] video it was about the size of a hockey puck, but according to my dad it was more like two hockey pucks put together,” Iwanski said with a chuckle on Wednesday afternoon, by phone from her home in Marquette on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“So, yeah, it was huge.”
On an even grander scale, Iwanski recovered from the cancer, which was diagnosed in the summer of 2017, after her promising freshman season as a defenseman for RPI, and picked up right where she left off. Having lost her sophomore hockey season to treatment, which included seven weeks of radiation, Iwanski still re-enrolled for the spring semester in 2018 and did not miss a game as a junior and senior.
When RPI announced its senior awards two weeks ago, it was fitting that the athletic department gave Iwanski the Perseverance Award, for the “student-athlete who overcame a significant physical or personal obstacle and demonstrated exceptional effort in exhibiting their commitment to their teammates and the Institute.”
“I’ll never forget, she sent me this one picture, she’s laying in her hospital bed, she has this huge bandage out of surgery, and she’s thumbs-up,” Vines said. “Then she followed up with this picture of this massive scar across her head. I was just like … she’s definitely a hockey player.”
Iwanski was 100 miles from home, living alone while taking a summer physics course at Michigan Tech, when she suffered a seizure — “a weird headache,” she said — that was the worst in a series of symptoms that had been building for weeks.
Fortunately, her mother happened to be less than a half-hour away on a drive up from Marquette for a visit and was able to take Kirsten to the hospital, after Kirsten had called 911 and police responded. She never lost consciousness.
“I got called into the emergency room, they ended up doing a CAT scan and I still remember sitting there in the room, and I actually ended up throwing up, which the tumor caused, the first time that’s ever happened,” Iwanski said.
“The doctor came back in, and he said, ‘It’s not good news. You have a huge mass in your frontal lobe.'”
Iwanski was flown back to Marquette, where the hospital was better equipped to handle her case, and two days later she underwent surgery to remove the tumor.
If there was any doubt about how well equipped Iwanski was to handle this sudden dangerous turmoil in her life, “following surgery, I was only in the hospital for two days, and could’ve gotten released earlier, but they had a good lunch that day, so I stayed to have it,” she said with a laugh.
“You’re horrified, and just really worried about one of your players,” Vines said. “And she’s waiting for emergency surgery, and then he [Iwanski’s father] tells me she’s studying for her physics test.
“That was kind of my introduction to Wan. Your whole life has been flipped upside down, and that was her. That was my experience throughout her career here. Just an amazing person.”
At the time, Vines had just been hired as the RPI head coach and was on the job for about a month.
He hadn’t even gotten through the roster for introductory phone calls, including Iwanski, when an assistant coach called him with the news, followed by a phone conversation with her father.
A few weeks after the surgery, Iwanski went through more tests, including a spinal tap, at which point the radiation sessions were scheduled.
Her first moment back on skates came with her hometown youth league, for which she volunteered to help coach.
Meanwhile, her team back in Troy played a season without her, but she stay connected as best she could, and they supported fundraising efforts to benefit a cancer care unit in Marquette.
The Engineers opened at Ohio State, and Iwanski made the 9 1/2-hour trip down from Marquette to Columbus to surprise them.
“We got to the rink at 5 and everyone’s getting their warmup in, then we have a team meeting at 5:30,” Vines said. “She came in with me. We kind of sent her in first. So the team is waiting for our strategy meeting, and she came in and they just erupted.
“People were crying … we didn’t have a meeting, obviously, after that. That was the meeting. And we didn’t win those games, but, my God, we played our hearts out.”
“This whole time I was considered part of the team, and they were super-supportive and helpful,” Iwanski said. “When I came back in the spring, I was on the ice with them and practicing as a medical redshirt. I met with Vines and he knew I wanted to be out there, but it wasn’t something worth risking.
“I probably pushed it a little too much at first. But a week or two after surgery, I was trying to get out there and do stuff. I was probably on the ice a little too soon.”
Iwanski finally got her first actual game action in an exhibition against Carleton University at Houston Field House to kick off her junior year.
“I remember getting dressed in the lockerroom, or even just entering the rink, out of nowhere it just hit me and I walked in the locker room and started crying,” she said. “I didn’t expect that. I don’t know. It just hit me. It was happy tears. I was overwhelmed.”
“Our hardest-working player, bar none,” Vines said. “Out early for ice. She loves the game. And it put it in perspective how lucky we are to play Division I hockey.
“Her grades didn’t miss a beat. She’s an elite student, she’s going through recovery, and then she stayed through the summer and wanted to train on campus. She never wanted to be treated differently.”
Iwanski was scheduled to return to her internship with Boston Scientific in Minneapolis this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled that.
She still has one academic semester to make up for having missed the fall of her sophomore year, so she’ll graduate next December. Then she’ll return to the lab for some company and is optimistic that she might even get her old job back.
There’s no way to measure what getting those final two hockey seasons back meant to her.
“It’s made me more appreciative, especially of hockey, having that taken away from me and really changed my perspective and made me more grateful to have had that opportunity,” she said. “To play Division I, and at RPI, that’s a crazy opportunity. It gave me more drive to come back, when it was taken away from me.”