Most Valuable Player

A critically ill 2-year-old defies the odds and becomes a baseball player

Jackson playing baseball

College athlete Jackson Vaughan likes to start his mornings the same way, after a full night of sleep. He often begins by making a fruit smoothie with beet juice, turmeric, coconut water, and a dash of probiotics. Before leaving the house, he performs a ritual of mental health mantras to keep himself feeling positive and strong. Next up is a workout that could be any combination of squats, deadlifts, sprints, and bench presses. Then pitching practice starts, which is usually the highlight of his day.

“I realized the benefits of treating my body nicely, and it gives me so much energy,” says Jackson. To him, being in good health is a gift. When he was 2 years old, his parents, Jeff and Jenny, took him to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford after feeling a lump in his belly. It turned out to be aggressive, stage IV cancer, and the tumor in his liver had metastasized into his lungs and lymph nodes.

A harrowing series of health crises followed. While Jackson was too young to remember any of them, his parents still get emotional talking about it all. In a promising start, his cancer responded to chemotherapy. Still, the tumor was embedded in a central spot in Jackson’s liver. His medical team decided that a full liver transplant was his best chance of survival. Timing was critical. His care team knew that this kind of tumor was likely to quickly return. But the chemotherapy had depleted Jackson’s immune system’s reserves. The transplant was risky, but his family decided to try it.

To their dismay, the transplanted liver didn’t work. The next day, it had to be taken out, and Jackson was immediately put on a machine to perform the organ’s vital functions. His situation was tenuous, and his blood pressure plummeted, sending him into cardiac arrest. For more than 30 minutes, the intensive care team struggled to revive him as his parents looked on, terrified. At last, Jackson’s heart responded when doctors thrust a syringe of epinephrine into it.

Silver linings

Amazingly, this episode didn’t cause heart, kidney, or brain damage. But again, timing was critical. Jackson couldn’t live long without a liver, even on the life-sustaining machine. It wasn’t clear how he would recover after such a prolonged cardiac arrest.

Jackson’s core team fought hard for him to quickly get a new liver, convinced that taking the chance was worth the risk. Their determination paid off, and his second transplant was a success. His surgeon, Carlos Esquivel, MD, PhD, still remembers the anguish of knowing that Jackson could run out of time if a liver wasn’t found fast enough. “I remember it as if it happened this week!” he says. “But Jackson was a tough little guy, and it makes me happy to know that he is as tough and determined now as he was back then.”

During this time, the Vaughan family managed to maintain a remarkably optimistic attitude. “After that night, everything was just peaches and cream,” says Jeff. “We knew it could never get that bad again.” They found the bright side in being together at the hospital for many months, along with their 5-year-old daughter, Ali. “It was so great having Ali there because Jackson just adored her and they kept each other’s spirits up,” remembers Jenny. “She’d eat his hospital meal and then take him down to the cafeteria so he could get another meal. We had a lot of good experiences together.”

Even when Jackson encountered roadblocks after the transplant with infections, the family didn’t consider them setbacks. “Infections were almost like vacations. We were just so thankful to have gotten through the chemotherapy, cardiac arrest, and the second transplant,” says Jeff.

The underdog advantage

Even though Jackson doesn’t remember it, his early experiences were formative. He grew up determined to turn moments of doubt and uncertainty into opportunities to excel. The fact that his medical team didn’t give up on him despite all odds made a lasting impression. “I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t fight for me and believe in me,” he says.

He also attributes his positive outlook to his family’s fortitude, resilience, and unflinching support. “I remember when I was young, they told me, ‘If you get an A in a class and don’t try, I’ll be mad. But if you get a D and try your hardest, I’ll be proud.’ That really stuck with me.”

When Jackson was young, he found it eye-opening to realize that his early childhood was different than other kids’ experiences. “I assumed that everyone lived in a hospital when they were young,” he says. In sixth grade, he figured out that not many people really did. “And in high school, I realized that nobody went through that! It definitely became a part of my identity that was a foundation to build from rather than to fall back on.”

Now, much of Jackson’s identity centers on baseball. When he first picked up a ball and glove at age 7, it was instant love. “But I was never good,” he laughs. He was usually picked last and put in right field. But he worked hard at it, never taking time off and going to extra practices. “I realized that my biggest strength isn’t talent,” he says. “I wasn’t strong or fast. But I could work hard and show up every day, and that’s what I did. I have a work ethic like a horse.” This persistence paid off. He went on to pitch for his high school team, and last year he was offered a baseball scholarship to University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.

Eyes on the prize

Jackson has gotten blood work at Packard Children’s once a year, and it’s come back perfectly each time. Unlike a lot of young adult patients, he hasn’t foundsticking to his posttransplant medication regimen to be a challenge. Many transplant patients at Packard Children’s are adolescents, and unless they are careful to take their medication for the rest of their lives, they risk an organ rejection.

“I can see how someone could go off track at school with partying, and the temptation to do drugs or drink,” he says. “I don’t do any of that. I do sometimes want to fit in, but I know that being my best self is a bigger drive than wanting to fit in.”

This semester, Jackson is studying geology and has a plan to pursue it as a career in case professional baseball isn’t an option. “Being a short baseball player, the odds aren’t good that I’ll make it to the big leagues,” he says. “But what were the odds of surviving stage IV cancer, 11 rounds of chemo, and two liver transplants? I’ll keep playing baseball until I can’t anymore.”

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