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Cancer researcher Kimberly Dahlman is too busy to run in the Boston Marathon, but she’s doing it anyway — for her daughter

“Even though I felt like I was already over-committed, I knew that I needed to do this"

by March 21, 2019

Kimberly Dahlman and her daughter Emily. Photo by Sarah Beaty

The commitment seemed too big. The timing was wrong. Her life was too busy.

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researcher Kimberly Dahlman, PhD, was looking at the Boston Marathon website last summer, dreaming about someday running in the race that goes through her hometown, Natick, Massachusetts.

Although Dahlman has been running for more than 15 years and has completed the New York City marathon and many half-marathons, she doubted that she would ever have the fast time required to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She was scrolling through the list of official charities — organizations that host teams of runners who raise funds for the charity and who might not otherwise qualify — when she saw the logo for Camp Shriver.

Kimberly and Roger Dahlman with daughter Emily and son William. Photo by Sarah Beaty

“I knew the name Shriver, but I didn’t know anything about the camp,” Dahlman said. She read quickly about this free, inclusive summer sports camp in the Boston area that welcomes equal numbers of children with and without disabilities.

“Even though I felt like I was already over-committed, I knew that I needed to do this,” said Dahlman, whose 5-year-old daughter, Emily, has disabilities. “I don’t have to imagine what a camp like this means to families like mine. There are limited opportunities for children like Emily to learn and play alongside typically developing peers during the summer. I felt like I needed to raise awareness of this struggle and advocate for children with special needs.”

Emily was born prematurely and spent 108 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “The nurses and physicians at Children’s were phenomenal and so supportive,” Kimberly said.

Dahlman applied and was selected to be one of 10 team members to run the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2019, for Camp Shriver.

Emily was born prematurely at the 29th week of pregnancy, and she spent 108 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“The nurses and physicians at Children’s were phenomenal and so supportive,” Dahlman said. “We still keep in touch with many of the people we met during that time.”

Emily’s premature birth was accompanied by brain injuries, and she lives with significant disabilities. She is non-verbal and struggles with gross and fine motor skills.

Emily and her brother William enjoy hanging out together. Photo courtesy Dahlman family

Even though she cannot speak, Emily communicates in many ways, Dahlman said.

“She knows sign language, uses picture cards and is learning to use an augmentative and alternative communication device that speaks for her. And for 5-year-olds, communication can be about offering a toy, grabbing a hand to say ‘let’s go play’ … it doesn’t necessarily involve words.”

Emily loves to have light saber battles with her 7-year-old brother, William, and she wants to be given the opportunity to do what her friends can do, Dahlman said.

In blended classrooms of children with and without disabilities at Susan Gray School and Harris-Hillman School, Emily has thrived. She will begin kindergarten at Eakin Elementary School in August.

“Emily has a lot of friends, including typically developing peers who would consider Emily their best friend,” Dahlman said.

As Emily got older, Dahlman and her husband, Roger, realized that keeping Emily engaged with peers when school’s out during the summer will be a challenge.

Some summer camps in the Nashville area include options for children with special needs, but the sessions are typically only one week long, and they are very expensive. The short sessions make it tough to build relationships, especially for children who may take a little longer to get to know new people, Dahlman said. And she worries about families without the resources to pay for summer camps.

She could hardly believe it when she read that Camp Shriver has two monthlong sessions, includes transportation and is free.

“I was absolutely blown away by what they’re doing,” she said. “I knew that it was something that I absolutely needed to support. Running is one thing that I can do.”

Emily loves to have light saber battles with her 7-year-old brother, William, and she wants to be given the opportunity to do what her friends can do.

The original Camp Shriver was held by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the early 1960s — in her own backyard — and is considered to be the beginning of the movement that became the Special Olympics. The Kennedy and Shriver families have a longstanding connection with Vanderbilt through the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, which was founded in 1965 and offers services and research into developmental disabilities and human development.

“There’s an enormous need for this type of camp,” Dahlman said. “I wish we had something like this in Davidson County that I could be supporting.”

Dahlman, assistant professor of Medicine, directs the Innovative Translational Research Shared Resource. She and her team work with oncologists to understand the mechanisms of response and resistance to cancer therapies, mostly in the context of clinical trials.

To find out more or support her marathon team, go to www.kimrunsboston.com.

Kimberly Dahlman, Running, Boston Marathon, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt