“Some people, they receive a diagnosis like that they become radically different. Kiersten didn’t change who she was. She just made it a mission really to pack as much living into what she had left.”
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John Dickson was born in a little town in northwest New Jersey called Blairstown. He spent nearly half of his life there before moving to Georgia and enrolling in Georgia Tech to study mechanical engineering. While attending Tech, he began working for a small company to design drive-up ATM enclosures. The owner of the company asked Dickson what he knew about computers. “I have one at home, and I know a little bit about them,” says Dickson. The owner asked him to build a computer network. “I had fantastic fun. What I learned was I really liked working with computers more than anything.”
It was another college job that changed the direction of Dickson’s life forever. He was working for Wal-Mart when the manager of another location asked if he wanted some overtime hours. Dickson agreed, seeing it as a chance to earn extra money and maybe meet the woman of his dreams. He did both, the very next day. She turned out to be Shawn Butler, who also had a love of computers. She came from a military family and grew up in Woodstock, just five miles from where the Dickson family currently lives.
Within two years, the young couple married and became the parents of a baby girl they named Kiersten. Dickson never got around to finishing his degree, but little did he know that Tech would always be a special place in his life.
Several years later, the Dickson family welcomed another daughter, Erin. Growing up, she was a self-described troublemaker. “I used to be the kind of person that lied and did little small things. Not big things, but just to get under my parents’ skin because I was a younger kid and I got away with everything.”
Kiersten, the eldest, loved playing and watching soccer. She was bright and outgoing and didn’t know a stranger. “She was annoyingly happy,” says Erin Dickson teasingly.
Shawn Dickson recalls, “[Kiersten] befriended everyone, from the geekiest person in the class to the most popular in the class.”
She was an eternal optimist, a characteristic she held on to even while facing a terminal illness. In 2013 when she was a sophomore at Georgia State University, doctors diagnosed the 19-year old with stage four small cell lung cancer, an aggressive form of the disease with a low survival rate. Although she held out hope for successful treatment, Kiersten knew that she didn’t have much time left.
“So basically what she did was just kind of amped up who she was,” says John Dickson. “Didn’t change. Some people, they receive a diagnosis like that they become radically different. Some people become super religious; some people become atheists. Kiersten didn’t change who she was. She just made it a mission really to pack as much living into what she had left.”
She traveled a lot and raised money to find a cure for cancer and to offset families’ financial burdens. Kiersten also participated in research to improve cancer patient care.
Although Kiersten was an adult, she received treatment at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Her oncologist told the Dicksons about a research project with Georgia Tech to examine inefficiencies in the patient care process. Children receiving chemotherapy go through a complicated process involving multiple steps, providers, and rooms. With funding from the Imlay Foundation, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Georgia Tech Research Institute are working with pediatric cancer patients to develop a “passport” app, which collects time motion data about their visit and provides qualitative information expressing how they felt in each location.
Researchers interviewed Kiersten, and she spoke with Georgia Tech computing students not much older than she was about her cancer experience and how technology could influence patient outcomes.
On July 22, 2015, three days before her 21st birthday, Kiersten died. She left a lasting legacy. Her family continues her work to find a cure for cancer and make life a little easier for those undergoing treatment. Erin Dickson, who will attend the University of West Georgia on a soccer scholarship beginning in 2019, wants to become an oncology nurse.
“it was just kind of a calling. I realized how much I still didn’t know about cancer and so I wanted to learn more. And the more I learn, the more I realized that I still wanted to help cancer patients.”
Georgia Tech Connection