Xavier Magazine

Choice We Make

Kristie Jetter hears the ping of another e-mail landing in her inbox. She freezes. It’s from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine announcing whether she’s been accepted or rejected for admission to the medical school. 

The senior in Xavier’s pre-med program knows she can’t be alone when she checks. At this critical point in her life, she needs all the support she can get. So she waits until everyone is home to gather her new-found family around her at the computer. Her husband, Paul, and his two young sons stand at her side as she checks. And there, in plain type, she reads the words she’s been waiting a lifetime to hear: “Accepted.”

Her future is set. Her past is overcome. The healing has begun.

For Kristie, her 22 years on Earth have been more than a lifetime for many people. She was barely 6 years old when her parents divorced. It was a difficult split for her mother, who hid her and her sister in a series of hotel rooms. One of Kristie’s earliest memories remains peeking out of a hotel room window, fearful her dad would take them away. He never did, but their childhood in Florida was anything but normal. Her parents were religious, but there was violence in the home, and it was sometimes aimed at the girls. Kristie took on the role of compassionate caregiver, helping her sister and particularly her mother, who slipped into a deep depression.

“When Mom started to fall apart after the divorce, I was the one who said, ‘Mom, I love you. Please don’t kill yourself.’ ”

By the time Kristie was 12 years old and living in Erlanger, Ky., the situation was out of control. Adults she didn’t know visited their apartment, her mother had violent outbursts and money was scarce. Kristie felt threatened. She was a good student but had no friends at school. The only place she felt safe was at the apartment of a neighbor. She began spending more and more time there—after school, on weekends and eventually overnight. When the couple offered the girls a home, Kristie knew she had to get out. So at age 13, she moved in with them and for the first time in her life felt safe and free. “I didn’t have a bed for three years,” she says, “but I was so much happier, I was glowing.”

Finally Kristie had time to focus on her education, the one part of her life where she excelled. Unhappy in traditional schools, she enrolled in an online high school and graduated four years later with a 4.0 GPA. Despite their family turmoil, her mother always encouraged Kristie in school. So Kristie began thinking about college and realized she wanted to be a doctor. After all, she says, doctors heal people.

“It’s sad to watch a family fall apart because of disease and sickness,” she says. “I want to be able to make people whole again because sometimes the problems that make people sad are things we can fix. If I can do that, it’s worth all the schooling in the world.”

As she prepared to enter Xavier on a full scholarship, she began a relationship with Paul Jetter, and by the time she started her freshman year, they were engaged, living in a suburban house and caring for his two boys.

Overwhelmed by her new lifestyle, unsure of her capabilities and intimidated by the coursework, she dropped by the office of pre-professional health advisor Kara Rettig-Pfingstag, who remembers the diminutive figure peeking around her door one afternoon.

“Kristie just kind of wandered in and we talked about what it would take for her to major in medicine,” Rettig-Pfingstag says. “She seemed up to the task and had a positive personality. She radiated this energy. I remember thinking after she left, yeah, she’s gonna do it.”

By her sophomore year, her life was settling down and her confidence was up. They found her a job as a lab worker and rearranged her classes so she could shadow a surgeon. She landed an internship with a heart surgeon and a full-time job at a clinical research company—all while maintaining a 3.8 GPA.

While she shares what she can with her mother, she’s focused on graduating in May and starting medical school. Her experience shadowing the heart surgeon has her thinking about neonatal heart surgery and saving babies’ lives.

“I want to be able to bring them back when something goes wrong,” she says. “It’s not just a heart fixed. It’s a life lived.”

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