Kaitlin Morelli knew she wanted to be a nurse in high school. She was inspired by her grandfather, a medic who served three tours in Vietnam. He allowed his grandchildren to help give insulin shots for his diabetes. He never wanted them to be afraid of needles.
For a number of years she was able to do what she loved as a nurse at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. She worked on the intermediate care unit, and was nominated for two Daisy Awards by patients who felt she’d gone beyond the call of duty. She also received the Nursing Excellence Award, a peer-based honor for nurses with a “commitment to excellence, innovation, compassion, integrity, caring and collegiality within their practice area.”
In her downtime, Morelli could be found running with the Blazing Soles training group in Chapel Hill, or enjoying some peace and quiet in her first home, bought in Greensboro down the street from a close friend.
It was strange when in 2010 Morelli began to experience fatigue. She went from running half-marathons and hiking mountains to feeling utterly sapped and short of breath. The next few years brought alarming chest scans and she underwent numerous pericardial effusions, where massive amounts of fluid were drained. It wasn’t until 2013 when open-heart surgery revealed the most unlikely diagnosis: pericardial mesothelioma, an extraordinarily rare cancer of the heart.
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It was such an unexpected find that her doctors were baffled, recalled her mother, Nana Morelli.
Not only was mesothelioma typically seen in much older patients, those who had lived in asbestos-riddled dwellings, this particular presentation around her heart was more or less unheard-of.
Kaitlin Morelli died this month after her years-long battle. The cancer was so rare, so difficult to treat, that it left her family wishing she’d been cursed with a more “run of the mill” form of the disease.
She survived six rounds of chemotherapy. The tumors were shrinking. She told her family she planned to return to work in the fall.
About a month before she died, she took a turn for the worse, and succumbed to heart failure. She was 27.
Beyond the call
Morelli demonstrated the knowledge and leadership to become a charge nurse at age 25. At the start of the year, she was devastated when she realized her illness would keep her from working. Though she knew allowances could have been made for her weakening state, she never took colleagues up on that offer. She told her parents, “I know they’d find a way to let me, but I wouldn’t be able to carry my weight and that wouldn’t be right.”
“She was a team player for other units if they needed help,” said Jennifer Twitchell, assistant nurse manager on the intermediate care unit.
Morelli was nominated by a patient for a Daisy Award after she came into work on her day off. She brought flowers and cake to the patient, who was celebrating a wedding anniversary. There was also the time she chased down a patient who left the hospital against medical advice – going all the way to a gas station down the street before giving up.
Fighting for life, helping others
Off the clock, Morelli seemed unable to turn off her impulse to be of service. Longtime friend and fellow nurse Hannah Rainey remembers Morelli helping folks pay for their groceries on more than one occasion in Walmart. One family friend, a single mother, was overwhelmed the time Morelli brought new shoes for her children.
Morelli dabbled in photography and was quick to help capture important moments like proposals and wedding vows, taking the time to compile special albums.
“She just always made sure that everybody was taken care of,” Rainey said.
While Morelli was fighting for her life, she watched many of her friends get married, start families, and move on with their careers.
“Not once did I ever think that she was resentful or not happy. ... She was just so happy for all of us,” Rainey said.
Her mother said Morelli showed a wisdom beyond her years, even as a child.
“She truly was a person that just liked people and could see the good in folks even when they couldn’t,” Nana Morelli said.