Courageous junior dies of cancer

Krishna Vara, a giving and caring Duke student with a dedication to community service and an extraordinary devotion to her friends, died Monday morning after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 20.

Vara was first diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that typically afflicts children and teenagers, when she was in high school. After surgery and eight months of chemotherapy and treatment, she returned to Mercer Island High School in Mercer Island, Wash., and was honored as valedictorian in June 1998.

Vara enrolled at Duke with the Class of 2002, building a huge network of friends and joining Maxwell House. But only two months into second semester, the cancer had returned, and Vara went home for the remainder of the year and all of the next one. She returned to camzOmegapus this fall to resume her studies and continued to build her friendships, joining Chi Omega sorority, and to hone her academic focus, planning to major in economics or public policy. Just before spring break, the cancer returned, and she traveled back to her home outside Seattle, Wash., to resume her fight. Friends say she died peacefully in her home.

"She had a spunky character, a real personality," said junior Adrienne Brueggemeyer, a member of Maxwell House. "She definitely had things on her mind and she definitely had things to say about what was on her mind."

Throughout her life, Vara surrounded herself with large numbers of extremely close friends. Teachers and friends recall that she took care to travel in many social circles to become as close to as many people as she could.

"I consider Krishna one of my closest friends and I only met her freshman year of college," Brueggemeyer said. "She was one of the people who touched me in a way no one else can or ever will."

Perhaps the result of her high school friends' care for her during her illness, Vara's commitment to her friends manifested itself every day. Earlier this semester, when Brueggemeyer fell ill, Vara came to her room, tucked her friend into bed, and watched her the whole night, sleeping on the couch.

Her commitment to others, though, extended past her immediate acquaintances and into her community. An active member of the Key Club of Mercer Island, Vara donated time to the Kiwanis Club, developing its website and donating all her earnings to the Key Club.

When she was 17, Vara was honored as a member as the Youth Hall of Fame; as part of the honor, she chose to mentor a younger student through a community service project. The Youth Hall of Fame celebrates courage, service and social enterprise by identifying young people who best exemplify these characteristics. "What [she] got to do is to leave a legacy with the community," said Larry Sagen, founder and executive director of the organization.

Glo Ceteznik, the high school teacher who nominated her for the award, said that throughout Vara's sickness, she always focused on what she could leave behind to others. In her last weeks, Vara shared with Ceteznik all sorts of ways that high school education in Mercer Island could be improved.

"I don't think I've even sorted this all out yet, but I think this comes from an innate goodness to leave a legacy for other people, to make others better in certain ways," Ceteznik said. "She talked about setting up a scholarship fund for her parents to pay for another student's education out of the money her parents would have spent to finish her education at Duke."

Jaclyn McGowan, another of Vara's closest friends at Duke, said her friend's memory will not be forgotten. After Vara went home this year, she called McGowan to pass on suggestions for how McGowan should live out her life. "Knowing her has given me a heightened awareness of the goodness of people. It makes me want to pass that along and reach out even more," McGowan said. "She had friends in all different areas at Duke. Seeing all of them come forward in the last few weeks and share their memories has been uplifting. I think there's a lot to be thankful for."

Vara is survived by her parents and her younger sister, Vauhini. Friends are planning a public memorial event for sometime next week.


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