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Student who beat cancer awarded Randy Pausch Scholarship

January 3, 2013

Field, a sophomore from Roseville, Minn., decided years ago when he fell in love with drawing and video games that he wanted to design someday for a living, although he didn’t know back then that he could go to school for such a thing. He is double-majoring in game design and development and entertainment design.

Kyle FieldFor the next two years, until he earns his bachelor’s degrees at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Field will be more than happy to answer to a pair of other descriptors: cancer survivor and Randy Pausch Scholarship winner.

Last fall Field was named one of two students in the U.S. to win a Pausch scholarship, sponsored by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. The award, worth $2,500, is named after the late Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.

Pausch became famous in 2007 after delivering an inspiring “Last Lecture” Sept. 18, 2007, to students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. The video of his lecture became an Internet sensation, and a book about it became a New York Times best-seller before he died.

Field has the same general career interest as did Pausch, who co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, and was in Pausch’s shoes as a cancer patient at almost exactly the same time.

In fall 2007 when Pausch, 47, had months to live and was making headlines with his lecture, Field too was expected to die. Field was 14.

A fight for life

Field had been diagnosed that spring, when he was finishing eighth grade, with myelodysplastic syndrome. His bone marrow wasn’t making enough healthy blood cells. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments in mid-July, then needed a bone marrow transplant later that month.

“It was an aggressive preleukemia that if they didn’t treat would develop into a very aggressive type of leukemia,” Field said, adding that it’s a somewhat rare disease and even more uncommon in young people.

That fall complications began. With virtually no immune system because of the transplant, a fungus called aspergillus set in and began eating away at his lungs. In late September, the bottom one-third of his right lung was removed.

He continued to worsen, and in early October 2007 at University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital he was placed in a coma and on breathing machines. A month later, showing no improvement and with no treatment options left, doctors approached his parents, Catharina and Terence Field, and asked them to sign do-not-resuscitate papers.

Kyle Field“They told my parents I had zero chance of surviving,” said Kyle, who also was on kidney dialysis because his kidneys had begun to fail.

His parents refused to sign. “As long as there was a little bit of life, there was hope,” Catharina said. “You’re sitting there starting to plan your child’s funeral. It was unbelievable to realize he was that close to death.”

Kyle’s best friend came to say goodbye, sitting at his bedside and talking to him although Kyle still was in a coma.

Several days after doctors had given up hope on Kyle, he miraculously began to improve. After about another month, he was brought out of the coma a week before Christmas 2007.

One of his parents’ biggest fears was brain damage. “There was no guarantee. I was just grateful he was alive. Even if he had brain damage, if he could recognize me and his dad, I’d have been OK with it,” Catharina said.

Their fears subsided soon afterward when Kyle easily passed tests for cognitive function. Catharina did her own motherly assessment. “I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said a video game designer. I thought, ‘OK, you didn’t lose that thought.’ ”

On Jan. 30, 2008, Kyle was discharged from the hospital.

After 2½ months in a coma, he couldn’t sit up unassisted and needed months of physical therapy. He rehabbed while reading Nintendo magazine and playing Guitar Hero. He also returned to the hospital for surgery in March because of stomach issues related to being comatose for so long.

He missed nearly all of his freshman year, but he still graduated on time three years later from Roseville Area High School.

“He was determined. He pushed through it all,” Catharina said. “I look at him now and he’s just thriving. He’s just loving every minute of it.”

A new perspective

Kyle, who knows that other children with him in the pediatric transplant unit of the hospital did not survive, said the experience changed his outlook on life.

“It does wonders for your optimism and sense of humor,” he said. “When you can live through something like that, it shows you have a fair amount of determination.”

Kyle was a procrastinator before his brush with death, Catharina said, but now approaches his life in a way that would have made Pausch proud. “When he came out of the hospital it changed his whole view. He says you never know what tomorrow will bring. He lives very much in the here and now. His motivation is to make the best of every day,” Catharina said.

Kyle is a member of the UW-Stout Honors College. He was one of 15 freshmen to receive an Honors College scholarship. “The Randy Pausch award is a great honor and could not have gone to anyone more deserving,” said Lopa Basu, Honors College director and associate professor of English who taught Kyle in an honors English class.

“He’s a very thoughtful young man. The experience of going through a major illness that nearly killed him has had a profound impact on him. He can empathize with many classical heroes who experienced epic battles and relate to them at a very personal level,” Basu said.

In his lecture, Pausch reminded people to follow their childhood dreams. Kyle said he is looking forward to using his artistic ability to create video games or do work in entertainment design that “others can see and appreciate.”

Randy Pausch Scholarship

The Randy Pausch Scholarship was established in 2008, the year Pausch died, to “support students who are pursuing careers specializing in the development of interactive entertainment” with paths such as art, animation, programming, engineering, game design, sound design and music composition, according to the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

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