Ross University School of Medicine’s (RUSM) director of student service operations and immigration has spent the better portion of her career committed to supporting students and developing creative outlets to engage them along their medical academic journey. So, it seemed only fitting that when Kelly-Anne Tesselaar Gonzalez’s husband fell ill, the circle of care was rounded by the very community whom she worked alongside and cared for during the last decade.
Jose was the love of Kelly’s life — the perfect blend of charisma, hutzpah and compassion. Before they married in 2016, Jose steadied Kelly when her mother unexpectedly passed away from acute renal failure. Little did she know she’d replay the favor so quickly when her husband, fondly nicknamed Superman, was diagnosed a few months later with stage 4 colorectal cancer at age 40.
During his four-year fight to beat the merciless disease, she was surrounded by kindness, hope and unabated attention from their healthcare heroes which included many from the RUSM community and its affiliated institution, Chamberlain University.
“My worlds collided,” Kelly recalled about the care team. She soon witnessed her work mantra — to graduate medical professionals who serve compassionately — come to life. “Our lives changed suddenly and the very individuals who we worked with in different capacities at RUSM were now a part of our lifeline. Experiences of new friendships made our fight bearable, and we were tied with a common purpose — to save Jose.”
Kelly became Jose’s uber caregiver — coordinating efforts between Florida and New York hospitals, managing his appointments, supporting him through rehab, and holding his hand through 60+ rounds of chemo and 20 surgical procedures / various treatments. “I was amazed at the fluency and demonstration of care,” Kelly said, sharing heart-warming stories about Chamberlain alumna Angie Rojas, RN ’14, the initial oncology nurse who became nurse manager of Jose’s oncology unit in Florida and eventually, one of her best friends. “Every time he was admitted to the hospital, even if it wasn’t her shift, she was always there. She became family.” Other nurses soon joined the pack as extended branches of support. “They adopted us and made us feel like we could overcome every step. We received the gift of their shared experiences.”
RUSM alum Scott Ross, MD ’10, provided tireless support even though he wasn’t an official member of Jose’s care team. “If something seemed awry, I would bounce ideas off him, and he remained objective and helped us navigate through new areas. He showed us overwhelming compassion and was a key member of our tribe.”
Kelly also praised RUSM students at Cleveland Clinic Florida who honed their listening skills. “We know they could have quickly moved on for other patients, but they stayed a little longer, leaned in a little more. Those moments were so valuable and for a moment, we forgot about our fight by just having a genuine human care moment.” Another fond memory was watching Jose emotionally connect with an RUSM graduate on his care team, whom the couple had assisted through Hurricane Maria displacement two years prior. “Jose saw the full circle of care.”
Stepping Forward for Others
Kelly and Jose became an admirable pair in the cancer centers at both hospitals, determined to beat the disease. They were mindful of their surroundings, understanding the longevity of the battle as well as tortuous side effects such as isolation, depression and despair. “We knew we needed to do something for cancer patients,” which led to the duo being nicknamed the ‘cookie monster couple’ for offering goodies and little surprises to fellow patients who quickly became newfound friends. Despite his cancer and ongoing treatment, Jose continued to ensure others’ comfort before his own. “We would often go looking for him to begin treatment and there he was befriending someone who was starting their journey or coaching someone about medical school or life challenges. He constantly inspired others — including me — and encouraged them to keep going.”
To ensure charitable gifts ensued, Kelly and Jose founded Project Happiness at both healthcare facilities, an outreach initiative to inspire a celebration of life that includes Christmas Hope Trees, family decorating sessions and ways to thank caregivers. “No one teaches you how to navigate the world when a loved one has cancer,” Kelly said, adding that she is partnering with others to create an online family resource support guide later this year. “We wanted to help as many people as we could who are enduring this awful disease and extend pieces of us that made us so vulnerable. When there is kindness in your life, you are desperate to pay it forward; to help someone else because it drives you.”
Kelly is grateful for the unwavering support of her work families at RUSM and its parent company, Adtalem Global Education. She’s also humbled by the amazing new friendships, knowing something beautiful came from tragedy. “We are each other’s cheerleaders during life-changing moments. We cry together, celebrate the completion of chemo rounds and radiation, and give a group hug when a scan report shows no growth. Those moments of hope — even the smallest amount — show you how precious life is, and it is so profound. It means more time, more laughter, more memories!”
After playing video games with his beloved son Brad on his 10th birthday last November, Jose returned to the hospital for treatment. His progress abruptly changed direction and sadly, Superman lost his courageous battle. Recently, Kelly received a social media exchange from a student who enrolled at RUSM, thanks to Jose’s motivation. After consoling him on the heartbreaking loss, the third-semester student replied, “He was a blessing for me. I loved seeing him every morning while working out. He would brighten my day and talk to me about his family. I hope to continue living life the way Jose and I talked about — family first, kids and loving every day.”
Please visit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance and the National Alliance for Caregiving for more information.
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