Biz Tucson: Kelsey’s Spirit Endures

(via She traveled the world, exploring New York City, San Francisco, Australia, Israel and Poland – where she took part in the March of the Living, journeying from Auschwitz to Birkenau in a silent tribute to Holocaust victims.

She organized fundraisers as a young girl, and spent much of her childhood growing up at her family’s restaurant, Café Terra Cotta. In high school, her two passions were journalism and working as a student athletic trainer at Catalina Foothills High School.

Kelsey was headed for the University of Arizona this fall, where she intended to pursue her passions for athletic training and journalism.

Tragically, Kelsey’s dreams for her life ahead died with her on April 18, six days after her 18th birthday. She passed away from complications from acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, an aggressive form of blood and bone marrow cancer that is exceptionally rare in teens.

Diagnosed with AML five months prior, Kelsey battled cancer with grace, dignity and strength.

She continues to inspire. Her legacy lives on through the Bald Beauties Project® that Kelsey created in the midst of her own treatment.

The primary focus of the Bald Beauties Project® is to raise funds to provide a professional photographer and makeup artist for cancer patients who have lost their hair, and create kits for newly diagnosed teenagers with items necessary to endure the lengthy and difficult treatment in and out of the hospital. The organization also aims to raise funds for pediatric AML research.

“Had Kelsey survived, she would have given back and been involved in these efforts for the rest of her life,” said her dad, Michael Luria, executive director of Children’s Museum Tucson.

“She wanted to make a difference – and she would have made a difference,” said her mom, Maya Luria, community relations coordinator for the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona.

Kelsey’s vision for the Bald Beauties Project® was born of her own experience losing her beautiful, long blond locks. As clumps of hair started to fall out, a nurse urged her to take control and helped shave her head.

“She didn’t want to look in the mirror, and she wore a scarf,” Michael said.

Later that evening, Michael and Maya linked arms on each side of Kelsey and the three went together into the bathroom at Banner Children’s-Diamond Children’s Medical Center, and took off the scarf together.

No longer able to deny or conceal the physical reality of her cancer diagnosis, Kelsey wept at the sight of her bald head.

Then local photographer and friend Stephanie Epperson offered to do a professional photo shoot with Kelsey. On her first visit home between treatments in December, Kelsey got the full-on model experience, with a makeup artist, wardrobe changes and dramatic poses.

“Kelsey just loved it,” Maya said. “It lifted her spirits, empowered her and gave her confidence to go forward.”

She later had a senior portrait shoot with photographer Natalie Lindberg, and had an equally impactful experience.

Kelsey wanted the same for other teens going through cancer treatment. “It has done so much for me, I want to do it for others,” she told her parents.

That’s how Bald Beauties Project® was born. Kelsey also dreamed of creating comfort packs for teens with cancer, including a luxurious blanket, pillow, eye mask and other items.

She really hoped to make a difference through fundraising for research. “Research money isn’t going to AML – and there are no drug trials in Arizona. I feel totally gypped,” Kelsey told BizTucson in December.

These priorities helped keep Kelsey fighting.

The Lurias knew from the first day the fight would be mighty. By April her liver was failing and she was airlifted to the UCLA Mattel’s Children Hospital, for a possible liver transplant.

But her liver healed itself, the Lurias said, and she returned to Tucson on her 18th birthday.

Back at Diamond Children’s, Kelsey was surprised with a party from her beloved medical team. As word of the celebration spread on social media, members of the UA Wildcat football team, who visited Kelsey throughout her journey, hustled over to join in the party.

But the next crisis was upon them. The drugs that killed the cancer also destroyed her heart. With no viable options remaining, Kelsey decided it was time to go home. She spent her final days surrounded by her parents, 14-year-old brother, Max, and other beloved family and friends.

It was there, in an early morning conversation the day before she died, that Kelsey encouraged her parents to keep her memory alive by helping other children, particularly teens, with cancer.

She also urged them to take care of themselves. She made her mom promise to get pedicures and her Dad to go to happy hour with the guys every month.
Kelsey’s impact is widely felt, starting with Dr. Neha Bhasin, her pediatric oncologist at Diamond Children’s.

“Kelsey made a big impact on my life as a physician,” Bhasin said. “She taught me how children with cancer are way stronger than their oncologists and everyone around them. Whenever her parents or I gave bad news to Kelsey, she was the more mature one in the conversation. She took every obstacle with maturity and made informed decisions throughout her treatment.

“Kelsey made me realize that life is very unpredictable and that every positive thing in our lives should be celebrated with a red velvet cake. She made me laugh and she made me cry and I am lucky I met this extremely strong woman.”

Among the 750 who attended her memorial service at the Tucson Jewish Community Center were her UA athlete buddies, members of the Tucson Police Department SWAT team and her principals from Sunrise Elementary School, Orange Grove Middle School and Catalina Foothills High.

While they miss their daughter terribly, the Lurias are proud of her many accomplishments.

“We are very grateful for the life she had,” Maya said.

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