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Cover of Spring - Summer 2003 Issue


Not the struggle, but the JOY of living

Judy McReynolds

Photo of Gay Kampfmueller, Class of 1978
Photo of Gay Kampfmueller, Longwood College Class of 1978
Gay kampfmueller is a successful woman. Virginia Beach could use her picture on its tourism posters. She enjoys life so much she greets the day at 3:30 a.m. That's when she runs. Yes, she knows the thrill of success. And every day, she conquers the agony.

Dr. Gay Kampfmueller (class of '78) is the Executive Assistant to the Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She works with 10,000 employees and 77,000 students.

Superintendent Dr. Timothy R. Jenney says she "doesn't let rules stand in the way of helping people who are in desperate need of assistance - whether they be employees, parents or students. She takes care of people."

In 1978, Kampfmueller was graduated from Longwood College with a B.S. in physical education. Soon after, she became the youngest person ever appointed to the Longwood Board of Visitors and served from 1978 to 1982, serving also on the presidential search committee that hired a new college president-Janet Greenwood.

The offer of a teaching position in her hometown of Virginia Beach came even before her Longwood graduation. Kampfmueller happily accepted and taught elementary physical education for four years. For the next five years, she taught high school P.E. and coached gymnastics and soccer. Then she moved to administration, serving as a middle school principal for six years and as an elementary school principal the next six years. Two years ago she become one of two executive assistants to the superintendent for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Education helped prepare her for each move. She remembers her Longwood graduation: "As Dr. Willett handed me my diploma, he said, 'Now it's time to start graduate school.' " She did -- earning a master's degree in administration from Old Dominion University, an education specialist degree from the George Washington University and an Ed.D. from Nova University.

Away from work, Kampfmueller ran road races, traveled. She expected another good run, along with a long distance swim and bike, in the September 1995 Virginia Beach Sandman Triathlon.

That's when the agony began.

In 1995 Kampfmueller's mother died from ovarian cancer. Soon after, Gay and her brother Todd decided that, together, they would do the Sandman Triathlon. They began training, but that summer she was diagnosed with an ovarian mass and underwent surgery. She was on the sidelines for the triathlon, cheering Todd.

As soon as the doctors allowed, Kampfmueller returned to training, and she and Todd looked to the 1996 race.

But by summer, she experienced chronic fatigue. The diagnosis - systemic lupus, a disease of the immune system for which there is no cure. Her doctors said her running days were over. Once more, she cheered Todd's finish.

Kampfmueller started another comeback, assuring Todd that they would finish the 1997 race together. By summer, she had symptoms which the doctor attributed to lupus affecting her brain. It was, in fact, a brain tumor. She gave up plans for the triathlon and underwent brain surgery. Along with the tumor, part of her skull was removed and a plate inserted. The doctors said her running days were definitely over. It would take years just for the brain membranes to grow around and cushion the plate in her head. For the third and then the fourth times, Todd finished the race without her.

In March 1999 Kampfmueller told her brother she was ready to begin training and that this would be the year she would finish with him. He was skeptical. She began early morning training and pushed herself through pain, fatigue, bleeding and headaches caused by the lupus.

Hurricanes? Says Kampfmueller, "You have to train. Who knows? You might have to swim the race under those conditions." So, undaunted by hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, Kampfmueller continued the ocean swims, adding seasickness to her challenges.

In mid-summer 1999, Kampfmueller started to cough. Her doctors treated her for bronchitis. But the cough got worse. The lupus had attacked her esophagus. "I told the doctor, 'I have a triathlon to run.' " And she did. On September 19, 1999.

"I finished the race. Todd and I were side by side all the way. I finished the race and that night I got on a plane for The Johns Hopkins University Hospital."

At Johns Hopkins doctors examined Kampfmueller and sent her back to Virginia Beach for surgery to reopen her esophagus.

She has recuperated. Recuperated enough to train for the Shamrock Marathon, March 2000 -- her first marathon.

Her poignant victory of mind over body was covered in September in the Virginia Beach section of the Virginian-Pilot.

Kampfmueller, at first, had resisted the reporter's interest - "I didn't want people saying, 'Oh, I didn't know you were so sick.' People feeling pity for me. " But she finally agreed.

And she's pleased with the outcome: "By far the majority of people didn't focus on my experience, instead they told me how they were inspired by the story to tackle something difficult in their own lives.

"And I thought - Now that's what it's all about."

Dr. Gay Kampfmueller-daughter, sister, teacher, coach, principal, executive assistant to the superintendent, runner, and inspiration - may be wonder-woman or mad-woman; whichever it is, she's an accomplished woman, and what shines from her is not the struggle, but the joy, of living.

Now that's what it's all about.