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A second chance at life for Kari Salinas

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Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013 12:00 am

The lunchtime rush was in full swing and Tin Roof BBQ was buzzing. Amid the restaurant chatter and shouts of “Order up!” from the counter, Kari Salinas could not keep still. She wiped down a table. Took one order and delivered another. Dropped off plates at the kitchen.

What others may call drudgery is a routine that Salinas is glad to return to.

“It feels great,” she said after a three-hour Wednesday shift in August, her second shift back on the job. “It feels normal.”

Months have passed since she could say that.

Any sense of the ordinary vanished back in April, when a devastating leukemia diagnosis shook her world. But now, order is returning. The 19-year old Galt High School grad, who wrestled against boys as a senior and trained at Morgan’s Martial Arts in Lodi, had been faced with the fight of her life — one she has continued to win.

Salinas braved chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant earlier this summer. Her cancer has been in remission since May, which subsequent biopsies have only confirmed. Her arm and chest are catheter line-free, her hospital visits less frequent. She now is back to working full weeks at Tin Roof, even as she undergoes spinal chemo every other Friday to prevent a cancer recurrence in her brain.

As of last week, she only had two of those outpatient procedures left.

The road to full recovery, to normalcy, is clearer than ever.

“She’s amazing to me,” Kari’s mother Gale Salinas said. “She’s so strong. She’s handled it wonderfully.”

Irritants still remain — nausea, fatigue and migraines from medication; trips to the infusion center; monthly bone biopsies — but they don’t keep Kari from reveling in the magic of every day.

“Everything has happened so fast,” she said. “It just feels like a second chance at life.”

‘How you fight’

Dr. Elias Kiwan, Kari’s oncologist at Sacramento’s Sutter General Hospital, was amazed.

On June 13, Kari underwent intensive chemotherapy in preparation for her critical bone marrow transplant one week later. The potential complications were numerous — a failure to accept the new stem cells, the real danger of infection or disease from a depleted immune system.

Even a speedy recovery would mean over a month in the hospital.

But Kari shattered those expectations, never experiencing the worst of the potential side effects. Her brother Chris’ stem cells started engrafting successfully after eight days, ahead of the typical 10, and her white blood cell count never went down fully to 0.

On July 6, just 16 days post-transplant, she was cleared for release. Her transplant discharge timetable is believed to be a record for the clinic.

“I had never seen it before,” said Kiwan, attributing Kari’s achievement to her fitness and her character. “It all depends on how you fight. She was excellent. She was always positive. Her attitude, her moving around, her walking — it was a big thing for us.”

Indeed, much like during her first round of chemo in April, Kari displayed incredible resolve.

Every morning, she looked with anticipation at the whiteboard to track her blood count.

Chris Salinas, who flew down from Washington to be Kari’s donor, was constantly amazed by that resilience. While the transplant was not easy for him, between receiving injections and having a catheter in the side of his neck, Chris was honored to offer direct help.

“What I went through was very little. I wanted my sister to get on with her life. I was willing to go through anything, any pain, any torment,” he said. “I’m happy to see her at home, I’m happy to see her trying to get a daily routine going. I just kind of told her to take it, use it as a new start at life.”

‘Full of life’

That new start has not been a simple one.

Kari’s ordeal struck right as her transition to adulthood was beginning.

Many of her friends are already in college, while she is in effect starting over.

“(It’s a time where) you’re trying to figure things out,” Gale Salinas said. “She’s at a limbo-type age.”

But Kari is not worried.

She is simply happy to be moving forward.

“(Earlier) I took things for granted. I wasn’t happy,” she said. “This made me realize things change like that.”

With her illness making her original plan to join the military unlikely, she may soon start online classes in forensic science, in hopes of a future career in criminal justice. She wants to continue working at Tin Roof and add another job later on to save up for a car. And of course, Kari still hits the mitts, now carpooling once a week to a Stockton gym to train with fighters from Morgan’s following the closure their Lodi location.

All along the way, she continues to inspire.

“It’s not every day you get a girl who wants to train in that,” said Kari’s boyfriend Matthew Featherlin, an avid MMA fighter. “And then being able to pull through after what she went through and wanting to go back — she’s so determined. She’s one of the roughest, toughest girls I know.”

The two attended Temple Baptist Church and had trained at Morgan’s together, getting to know one another after Featherlin participated in Kari’s blood drive fundraiser in June. They eventually went to a cage fight together and have been together ever since.

Despite living in Lodi and working in Stockton, Featherlin visited Kari daily during treatments at the hospital in Sacramento.

He, too, was witness to her fighting spirit.

“She’s like the Energizer bunny,” he said. “She’s full of life.”

Contact reporter Ed Yevelev at edy@lodinews.com.

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