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Illnesses Beget Empathy

Various health crises spur nursing student Brittany Blackwood to pursue an oncology career.

KIRKLAND, Washington — Brittany Blackwood, a junior in the nursing program at Northwest University here in suburban Seattle, has overcome myriad health problems herself in her 21 years.

Blackwood grew up attending Hillside Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Napa, California. She is the youngest of four children raised by a single mother schoolteacher, Karin.

At 13, Brittany almost had to undergo a leg amputation due to a fungal infection. Various creams and medications healed the condition, although a massive scar remains on her calf.

Still, she managed to recover to the extent of becoming active as a softball and volleyball athlete. However, she learned how to lift weights incorrectly, which resulted in playing through pain. Her injury progressed to the point where she ultimately couldn’t walk because of a crushed spine.

At 15, Brittany underwent a discectomy laminectomy surgery in a children’s hospital, which put her life on pause for another year. Yet this medical crisis proved transformational.

“It caused a shift in my relationship with God, it gave me purpose,” she recalls. “I heard the Lord speak clearly: You will be a nurse in a children’s hospital.”

At the age of 19, Brittany couldn’t digest food properly. Multiple doctor appointments followed. After a diagnosis of non-ulcer dyspepsia, she had to eat food akin to baby formula for a year. Several endoscopies left scars.

“I didn’t have nutrition in my body to function well,” recalls the radiant young woman. “At the time, I was confused about why I was struggling so much.”

The Book of Job has been inspirational for her, as she recounts the crises and trauma she endured.

“I don’t regret going through trials because God always has turned trials into something good,” Blackwood says. “They have made me a better person.”

Specifically, Blackwood aspires to be a pediatric oncologist nurse.

“After being a patient so many times and getting care from wonderful doctors, nurses, and physical therapists, I want to give back,” Blackwood says. “Pain and adversity have taught me empathy.”

While enduring some of her troubles, Blackwood’s grandmother Jo Anne Johanson and her cousin Terry James both went through chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Brittany knitted scarves for them. She considered Terry, who encouraged her to pursue an oncology career, like a second mom. Terry died in 2017.

Subsequently, Blackwood has continued showing kindness to cancer patients, including AG pastor Jared S. McKinney. In 2020, Blackwood learned about McKinney’s battle with leukemia through his mother-in-law, Brenda A. Rasmussen, then a professor at Northwest University.

McKinney, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Northwest University in 2012 and a master’s degree at the school in 2017, worked as youth pastor at Bethany Christian Assembly in Everett, Washington, before joining the staff of Canvas Church in Kalispell, Montana.

In May 2019, McKinney, then 29, received a diagnosis T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Predominantly a childhood form of cancer, T-ALL is successfully treated in around 85% of cases. After rounds of chemotherapy, McKinney quickly went into remission. He recovered well enough to plant a Canvas Church campus in Billings, Montana.

However, the leukemia returned in December 2020. In April 2021, McKinney received a bone marrow transplant, which required a monthlong hospital stay in Seattle and multiple hospital visits the following 100 days. McKinney lived with his in-laws at the time. Father-in-law Philip J. Rasmussen then worked as vice president of church relations at Northwest University.

Blackwood became more familiar with McKinney’s plight via social media. McKinney tried to be transparent about his medical journey, both to seek prayer and to demonstrate his faith.

With university pastor Megan Reese Netherton, Blackwood organized a prayer walk-a-thon that raised $1,700 for McKinney.

“I wanted to show Jared’s friends and family that people were praying for him and to raise awareness for chemo patients going through an ordeal,” Blackwood says.

McKinney appreciates that the prayer walk occurred just as he prepared for surgery.

“I thought it was abundantly kind and thoughtful of Brittany to coordinate the prayer walk and to raise funds,” McKinney says. “She has a real heart for people who go through such things.”

McKinney’s wife of nine years, Kaitlyn Elizabeth, is worship pastor at the Billings campus. Kaitlyn also manages Rail Line Coffee, a ministry-minded business in Billings, and operates a bakery business on the side, Frosted Joy Baking Co.

Canvas Church has four locations, with plans to launch another dozen churches in the next decade.

LOWER PHOTO: Jared and Kaitlyn McKinney are grateful for Brittany Blackwood's compassion.


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.