Teacher who ‘pushed limit’ with cancer dies

After she pushed every medical limit to buy time with colon cancer, Bellevue teacher Karen Marie Pasqualetto died July 28, surrounded by family in her Bothell home. She was 37.

After she pushed every medical limit to buy time with colon cancer, Bellevue teacher Karen Marie Pasqualetto died July 28, surrounded by family in her Bothell home. She was 37.

Pasqualetto, a teacher at St. Madeleine Sophie Catholic school in Bellevue, found out she had cancer two summers ago after she had a cesarean with daughter, Isabel. She and husband, Chris Hartinger, had just brought their daughter home when Pasqualetto felt a lump under her ribs.

Tests revealed she had Stage 4 colon cancer, which had spread to her liver. Doctors estimated she only had six months to live and offered palliative chemotherapy to ease her symptoms.

But she wouldn’t take that for an answer.

After she had endured 22 rounds of chemotherapy, she opted for surgery — an option that doctors did not recommend as her tumors were too extensive.

“She worked her magic of being tenacious and found an oncologist who would see her right away,” said younger sister, Jill, of Dr. Philip Gold, an oncologist at the Swedish Cancer Institute in Seattle who saw Pasqualetto through to the end.

Johns Hopkins successfully removed five tumors, taking out more than a foot of her intestine and 70 percent of her liver.

“She really pushed the limit,” Jill said. “Surgery like that is done case by case. It’s really individual medicine, which is why you have to push so hard for it.”

Her fight garnered national attention, making the front page of the New York Times.

Pasqualetto was almost cancer free until last December, when it returned and grew rapidly. Last month, she finally made the decision to stop treatment.

“Everyone was touched by her battle,” Jill said, adding that she’s been getting many e-mails from people saying what an inspiration Pasqualetto is.

Born Aug. 31, 1970, in Burbank, Calif., Pasqualetto traded a law career for a middle-school classroom several years ago. She was among the first group of teachers who were hired when St. Madeleine Sophie opened, when there were only 40 students in grades kindergarten through eighth. It has since grown to more than 130 students.

“It’s where she was supposed to be and she knew it,” said Rose Wisner, St. Madeleine Sophie volunteer who worked alongside Pasqualetto. “Our children will be touched forever by Karen. She put her heart and humor into our school … and truly planted the roots that will now grow infinitely in our community.”

Abigail Nestvold, St. Madeleine Sophie kindergarten teacher and godmother of Pasqualetto’s daughter, said her friend was always in pursuit of excellence. She would see a hole somewhere and not just fill it, but find excellent ways to make things happen, Nestvold said.

Pasqualetto also was determined to get more time to spend with her family, including Isabel, now 2 years old.

“She was a great mom and knew she had little time to spend with her daughter, but fought for as much time as she could get to make an impression on her,” she added.

In the months before her death, Pasqualetto took many photos of family trips and made picture books for her family to remember her. She also made video clips for Isabel that included little life lessons on what she thought about things, such as wearing make-up, Nestvold said.

Pasqualetto also took the time and filled out a Hallmark card for each of Isabel’s milestones, including her high-school graduation, for her father to give to her along the way.

“Karen desired to be physically present throughout Izzy’s life and provide the wisdom only a mother can give a child,” said sister, Jill. “This is the kind of mother Karen is.”

Pasqualetto died peacefully July 28, surrounded by husband, Chris, Jill and friends.

During the funeral Mass Aug. 1 at St. Madeleine Sophie Church, about 200 family members and friends gathered to celebrate Pasqualetto’s life.

St. Madeleine Sophie Principal Dan Sherman read a scripture during the service, followed by the eulogy, which was read by Jill.

She shared how Pasqualetto was fearless and independent, packing up and moving to Berlin for several months during a challenging time in her life. She taught her sister how to take risks.

She was also a loving mother, Jill said.

“I remember once being in the car with Karen and Izzy, and Karen playing the children’s radio station,” she said. “Both she and Izzy knew all the words and began to sign along, laughing. The simple joy she found in moments like that illustrates the enjoyment she received from being Izzy’s mommy.”

St. Madeleine Sophie school has developed a scholarship fund named in honor of Pasqualetto, the school’s first eighth-grade teacher. The Karen Pasqualetto “Little Easter” Scholarship Fund will support those students in need of financial assistance. Pasqualetto means “Little Easter” in Italian.

The first scholarship has been given to Isabel to cover her tuition at St. Madeleine Sophie. The family is suggesting that remembrances be made to the scholarship fund.

• Karen Pasqualetto “Little Easter” Scholarship Fund: mail checks to 4400 130th Place S.E., Bellevue, WA 98006. For information, visit www.stmadsophie.org.