Kirstin Diehl - who was that, actually?

by Doris Ruch

Hardly any question seems as difficult to answer as this one.

Yes, I knew her. I was allowed to accompany her on her way through her illness. She confided in me her thoughts, perhaps even one or two secrets that she shared with no one else. But do I therefore know what kind of person Kirstin was? I would probably only be able to answer this with a yes if I had been close to her more constantly, if I had accompanied her in all her sorrows, fears, hopes and successes.

But I only dipped into her life - and her illness - for moments at a time, then returned to my own hectic, exciting, healthy existence. Yet Kirstin's father, one of the two people who were actually closest to her, believes that no one else could bring her back to life but me, of all people. My God - I have not really understood the phenomenon of Kirstin until today.

Yes, I know her story: Kirstin was born on August 2, 1971. Her childhood was well-balanced, her parents say. She was hardly ever ill, always cheerful and extremely active. Reading, riding, rowing, swimming or dancing - Kirstin did everything with passionate joy. She preferred to spend her vacations in sunny Italy. A lucky child, the sunshine of her parents, a picture book life. At first, she didn't take her stomach ache too seriously. Kirstin was not someone who immediately complained. She was 18 years old, wanted to graduate from high school later and, like all young girls, dreamed of her bright future.

The pain got worse and worse, she went to the doctor. The diagnosis changed her life - even before it had really begun. Kirstin had cancer. Her liver was already completely eaten away, her abdomen was teeming with metastases, and the doctors couldn't pinpoint the main tumor. They gave up on the teenager.

But Kirstin's parents were determined to fight for their child's life. With great difficulty, they managed to get a transplant. During this operation in the summer of 1990, Kirstin not only received a new liver, but also had her lymph nodes, spleen and stomach removed. The surgical team had identified the latter as the focus of the disease. And then a small miracle: Kirstin's weakened body accepted the foreign organ. Life seemed to give her a second chance. The girl seized it: Kirstin caught up on her high school graduation, traveled with her parents to South Tyrol and planned to study German in Trier. She was just about to look for a small apartment there when the setback came. Metastases in her lungs finally thwarted her dream of a normal future. But Kirstin did not realize this at first. When I met her at the beginning of 1995, I was sitting opposite a young woman who had been badly affected by fate - but who had not lost her courage. She was exactly ten years younger than me. And she had decided not to sit idly by and wait to see what the doctors intended to do about her illness. She had done her research, knew more about cancer and its cures than many advanced medical students. And she collected donations for the Freiburg Tumor Biology Clinic. There, she felt taken seriously and safe - and she entrusted nothing less than her life to the doctors.

At that time, she had already collected about 30,000 marks for the research center of this clinic. She had sold golden life sheets and self-embroidered Christmas cards or simply asked for donations. With considerable success. That's why I was there. Neither of us suspected that in a short time she would be able to show completely different sums - more than one million marks came together in only two years - and we both probably did not believe that this "appointment" would become friendship.

But could I have spent three or four hours with this person who opened up in all innocence, spoke unabashedly about her illness, fears and hopes, only to forget it as soon as the apartment door slammed shut behind her? I admired her and I could understand her. She was a fighter, one who didn't give up easily. One who does what she can do. Supporting research, encouraging other patients - these were Kirstin Diehl's weapons in the fight against cancer. She was deeply convinced that she could influence the growth of malignant tumors: She considered sorrow and suffering to be the food of the tumors and therefore set her courage to live against them. She also believed so strongly in herself because she thought it was her only chance to survive. She tried tirelessly to impart some of her strength to other cancer patients, simply because she believed it was the right thing to do to help those weaker than herself. And she enjoyed the many awards and appreciations she received because they made her feel she was not alone. All of these things helped her feel happy despite her illness, despite the loss of all that other people call quality of life. And yet there was something about this young person that remained a mystery to me.

The life in her passed, burned down like a candle. She became more and more delicate, fragile, the sight of her left less and less doubt that the moments with her were precious, because they could not be repeated. Kirstin didn't mind much talking about death. But she saw it differently. For her it was not dying, for her it was her life. Every minute of it was precious - no matter how bad she was. That made her a hero to a lot of people. Gives her a halo - especially now, after her death. I've never been comfortable glorifying her like that. Because Kirstin was a very normal person. Somewhere between child and woman, cancer had crept into her life. She came to terms with it: sometimes combative, sometimes wise, sometimes sad, sometimes impatient and unjust like a defiant little girl. Being with her could be a roller coaster ride, because sometimes she managed all these roles in a few minutes. Kirstin knew she didn't have much time. That's why she didn't allow herself the slightest pretense. Everything about her was real. It would never have occurred to her to quarrel with her fate. Why me? For her, this question meant wishing her own illness on someone else. Unthinkable! She considered it her duty to be there for others, because others were there for her, too. Of course, Kirstin knew at some point that her commitment to cancer research would no longer help her herself. But she had found the meaning of her life in it. That is why she continued to fight until the end. In order to be able to accept death in the end.

Kirstin Diehl was deeply human. She knew fear, doubt and hopelessness. All these terrible feelings that would assail any of us in her place were also familiar to her. Unlike most of us, however, she did not let them get her down.

On February 12, 1997, Kirstin died. She will live on in the hearts of countless people for a very long time.