Meeting Kalani Siler, the first thing people will notice is her glowing smile, according to Karen Landy, an instructor in FGCU’s Department of Health Sciences who has known the spring graduate for two years.
“When you get to know Kalani you realize that smile radiates from the kindness of her heart and in all she says and does,” Landy said. “I have been a teaching faculty member here for over 18 years, and Kalani is the kind of student who comes around once in a lifetime. She inspires me, and I know the future of health care is in good hands — her hands.”
Landy’s enthusiastic praise would carry no less weight even in a world not reeling from a global pandemic — in which Siler was working on the front line in health care. How many other 21-year-olds complete a bachelor’s degree in three years? While traveling out of state for treatment of a vascular tumor. And not missing deadlines for coursework. And staying active in Kappa Delta, Student Government, Club Volleyball and Global Medical and Business Brigades, among other student organizations.
“Kalani never asked for an extension on her classwork and never lost her positive outlook on life,” Landy said. “She is an inspiration to all. She has demonstrated leadership and mentoring excellence in my courses — never required, but she was always able to help other students be successful.”
How does this irrepressible Eagle do it?
“I’m a woman of faith,” says Siler. “I believe anyone has the ability to do something if they put their mind to it. Going through all the things I went through, I tried to stay positive. I pushed through. I shaved my head and did all that ‘fun’ stuff. I knew I wanted to graduate, and I had a great support system.”
Friends, professors and FGCU’s Student Support Services and Adaptive Services offices helped keep her going, she says, along with the inspiring fortitude of her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran who beat cancer four times.
“I feel like I get most of my strength from him,” Siler says, modestly. “I never really pictured myself as being strong and independent until this happened. I learned more about myself than anything.”
Discovering that resilience within herself began during spring semester of her freshman year, when the athletic, active teen suddenly began experiencing trouble sleeping, eating and sometimes speaking. After an initial misdiagnosis, doctors found a vascular malformation in her throat that turned out to be a tumor. Because it was situated near her windpipe and vocal cords, it would be difficult to remove, she was told. Through multiple surgeries and treatments at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, she maintained her optimistic outlook and academic progress — education being “the only constant” in her life, she said.
As a patient, Siler also learned a lot about the dynamics of the healthcare industry from the inside. Health science wasn’t originally her chosen field of study when she enrolled at FGCU after graduating from Lely High School in Naples. Family members had been in and out of hospitals while she was growing up, so she saw firsthand the healthcare system’s strengths and its weaknesses.
“On the patient side, I saw a lot of things I wanted to change,” Siler recalls. “In high school I had decided against going into health care, but as soon as got to FGCU I changed my major to health science. FGCU reignited my passion for health care. I thought I could make a difference in the administrative side of it, with patient care and communication.”
Siler started making a difference professionally in May 2019 when she began working at a Naples specialty clinic. It was there, this past spring, that her resilience was once again tested. She was exposed to the coronavirus on the job through an infected patient. There was special reason for concern because her immune system was weak from treatments she’d received, but she quarantined for 14 days and ultimately tested negative for the virus.
Yet again, Siler found a teachable moment in a personal experience that might unravel anyone with less mettle. Her insights influenced her approach when she returned to work and was redeployed to a LeeHealth emergency room in south Fort Myers where she registered and triaged incoming patients.
“Having to be quarantined is eye-opening — it’s scary,” Siler said. “People who aren’t directly affected by it aren’t really seeing the things we are seeing in health care. There are so many patients feeling the same things I was.”
Her empathy makes her something of a guiding light to patients who are worried, frightened or unsure what to do — which seems appropriate, considering the name her mother gave her, Kalani, means “the heavens” in Hawaiian.
Far from second-guessing her career choice or worrying about her own risk to work, she says her resolve has only been strengthened by serving the community in the midst of a global health crisis. Over the summer, she enrolled in an EMT program “to expand my horizons a bit within health care,” she said. And this fall, she plans to continue studying at FGCU as a graduate student in Marieb College of Health & Human Services.
“It hasn’t changed at all the way I feel about health care. If anything, it has pushed me more to be in health care and drove me back to work with people who might be in the same position that I was,” Siler said. “It’s best to do what I can and not be afraid of getting myself sick. I chose to go into health care for a reason. I’m not going to back down when we’re needed more than ever.”