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Mass Comm Major Follows New 'Leads' After Childhood Cancer Crisis

April 8, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Kim Kyle Morgan

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Kessler McLaughlin is a true-blue newsman, one who has interviewed politicians, athletes and minor celebrities. He's had a byline in print, been a voice on the radio and a friendly face on television. That's the kind of experience 11 years in the biz will do for a guy—even though McLaughlin is only 21.

Yes, that means he was just 10 years old when it all began in Phoenix, Ariz.

"I responded to an ad in a statewide children's newspaper," McLaughlin said. "They were recruiting student reporters. They said they would give me a press badge and I could cover stories and submit them. I thought 'this is cool. I get something with my name on it.'"

A month later, McLaughlin got a call asking him to take the day off from school to cover the arrival of President George W. Bush at Sky Harbor International Airport.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet the president because he didn't get to stop with the media," McLaughlin said. "But as soon as the motorcade left the airport, all the network news reporters turned their cameras on me because I was the youngest member of the press pool."

McLaughlin was hooked. Now a broadcast journalism major in mass communications at Sam Houston State University slated to graduate in December 2014, McLaughlin recently learned he's the recipient of a $1,000 Dan Rather Endowed Scholarship. Rather is a 1953 graduate of SHSU and the namesake of the campus communications building that houses a student newspaper, radio station and television facility.

"I was shocked when I got the news," McLaughlin said. "Any scholarship is good news, but this one is set up specifically by CBS to help people like me achieve their dreams."

McLaughlin's dream involves several years of chasing down hot leads as a reporter before settling down behind the anchor desk.

"I like the idea of reporting on something new every day," said McLaughlin, who is currently the executive producer in the audio/video department at First United Methodist Church in Huntsville. "I enjoy not knowing what my day is going to look like. And massive deadline pressure is just so appealing to me."

Perhaps that's because McLaughlin has already met the biggest deadline of his life.

Staying calm in a crisis

As a 14-year-old visiting his father and stepmother in Texas, McLaughlin's daily mindset was pretty much on the things most teenaged boys think about—what's for dinner and will there be chicks on the beach in Galveston. He tried to ignore the soreness in his joints, a pain he'd been feeling for several months but hoped would subside as he took a break from competitive cheerleading back in Phoenix.

"My stepmom noticed I was having a hard time moving around because the pain was so bad," McLaughlin said. "She suggested we get a blood test. By the time we got back from the doctor's office, the doctor had called and said to pack my bags and get to the hospital right away."

Kessler McLaughlin and sister Lacey
McLaughlin was met by his sister, Lacey—who donated the stem cells that allowed McLaughlin to survive his diagnosis of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia—after he completed the "survivor lap" during SHSU's Relay for Life in 2012. —Submitted photo

McLaughlin was immediately admitted to intensive care, where further testing confirmed he had Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a blood cancer not typically seen in children.

"They told me they didn't know what my prognosis was going to be," McLaughlin said. "That was tough, to say the least."

In addition to chemo, McLaughlin endured bone marrow biopsies on a weekly basis to make sure the cancer wasn't spreading. Then, he underwent full-body radiation three times a day for one week in preparation for the only chance he had of surviving.

"Doctors said I had two options," McLaughlin said. "I can have a stem cell transplant, but it's so dangerous I would likely die, or I can refuse treatment and definitely die."

The best stem cell match for McLaughlin was his sister Lacey, who was only 12 at the time and had a major phobia of needles.

"I was really scared, and I even said no at one point," Lacey said. "But when we found out I was a perfect match, my tears turned to tears of joy. After that, we started to get really, really close. We were just a regular brother and sister who sometimes fought and sometimes got along, but since the transplant, we've been best friends."

McLaughlin said he, too, was frightened but found solace in his faith.

"Laying there in my hospital bed, I remember thinking, ‘well, I'm in this. There's no other thing to do except fight,’" he said. "All of a sudden I had this divine peace wash over me. As terrible as things were, I knew I was going to be taken care of. The only way I've been able to explain that is it came from God. From the depth of my being I had this calmness—and since then I have never felt it again."

McLaughlin beat the odds, something he celebrated in May 2012 by chairing a Relay for Life cancer fundraising event at SHSU. Waiting for him with open arms as he completed the "Survivor's Lap" was his life saver, his little sister Lacey.

"She's the reason I'm here today," McLaughlin said.

Following a new lead

Life as a cancer survivor is fraught with anxiety. McLaughlin still wakes up in cold sweats, having nightmares that the cancer will come back. Every ache and pain is terrifying, and he never knows what kind of news his regular cancer checkups will bring. In fact, in January 2012, the results of a bone marrow biopsy triggered major worry.

"When he called me and told me, I just started crying, I was so scared for him," said Lacey, who lives in Phoenix and hopes to be a pharmacist one day. "If I had to, I would be a donor again, in a heartbeat."

Fortunately, a repeat bone marrow biopsy a few weeks later once again landed McLaughlin in the safe zone.

Today, he's focused on the pleasure of living life—and the business of beating deadlines.

"I am a different person today because of everything that's happened," Kessler said. "Things aren't the same as they were before, but I would argue they're better."

 

 

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