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Extra Lifer and Miracle Child Kennedy on Helping Others through Gaming

At PAX West this year, I had the chance to meet Kennedy, a Miracle Child from Seattle Children’s Hospital. She was at the event with her father, volunteering her time and energy to share her firsthand experiences in one of the many hospitals supported by Extra Lifers across North America. This was something she had done several times over the years after managing to beat the leukemia she was diagnosed with at age 7. The former football player has had to undergo extensive surgeries to repair the damage to her body, but she maintains and spreads a bright, hopeful energy.

One of the amazing things about Kennedy has been her long involvement in Extra Life. Not only has she volunteered at events like PAX West, but she is a member of the Seattle Extra Life Guild. That position has set her up to work with organizations like Wizards of the Coast to both spread the word about the work Extra Life does in hospitals as well as raise money. Back in 2017, she appeared on the official Dungeons & Dragons Game Day stream to play the tabletop game live and help the team bring in as many donations as possible.

Kennedy was generous enough to step away from the Extra Life booth at PAX West for a few minutes to tell her story.

Jack Gardner: So where does this all start?

Kennedy: I was about seven. I was playing football at the time. Later in the year, I started having problems with my body. I’d have less and less energy by the minute. I wouldn’t feel that great, and I passed out a couple of times. It wasn’t going… well.

We went to the doctor’s one day, they got a blood sample, and we went home. About one or two in the morning, we got a phone call saying I had leukemia. We rushed to Children’s Hospital in Seattle. [They] had everything ready, I got both my IVs in with antibiotics and everything. It’s a bit fuzzy, I don’t remember exactly a lot of it.

JG: Was that scary?

K: Yes, I was very concerned. Because I was 7, I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. Later on, I got my port in, but I was not the best at, like, blood, needles, stuff like that.

JG: Trust me, I’m the same way.

K: It’s not my thing. I was definitely not nice to my nurses. Screaming and crying was one of the things that has happened… all the time.

JG: I’m pretty good at crying, too.

K: It’s one of my specialties. We had problems with my port-

JG: And what is a port?

K: The port is like this little metal thing in your chest which then you access with a big needle with a little thing inside so it’s easier to get blood transfusions – I had those a lot. We had trouble with that because [the port] was moving all over the place so we had to get it removed and put in a second time.

Later, I started complaining about my joints in my hips and my shoulders. We got that tested, and it turns out -I don’t exactly know what it’s called- part of the chemo made the circulation to my joints cut off, so the joints died. It hurt a lot when I walked. I had to use a wheelchair. I started first with hiking canes, then a walker, and then a wheelchair.

About… two years later it was my three year mark. We saw this surgeon. His name was Chappie. He was willing to replace my hips because no one else would do that to a 10-year-old. He argued with the board all the time because they didn’t want him to do surgery on a 10-year-old. He moved, so that didn’t happen.

A year later, I’m finally done with treatment. My last day, I have a bunch of photos, I had a big sign that said “Last Day of Chemo!” A couple months later, my parents were looking at different surgeons that would do it, replace my hips and such. One popped up, this doctor, he and his other surgeon were willing to do both of my hip surgeries. Just last year, I got both of them done.

JG: How old are you now?

K: I’m 12, almost 13.

I’m going to get my shoulders replaced – we don’t know when, but it’s going to happen soon.

JG: Do your joints still hurt?

K: My hips don’t hurt – nothing else hurts aside from my shoulders. I can only lift them so far up, and I can’t do a lot of tasks with them.

We’re working to do my shoulders. I had leukemia for four years. It was kind of a rough time. I missed so much school. I didn’t even know how I was going to pass, but I had these amazing teachers who came to my house and tutored me. Even though [leukemia] had this bad impact, it gave me this good view on how everyone should live – never second guess yourself and just always do something.

JG: How did you get involved with Extra Life?

K: We are really close with the hospital and everyone in the hospital. It was one of my doctors who said, “Extra Life is a gaming 24-hour thing that you can do. They want to recruit kids and their families to help them out.” Me and my dad and my sister applied, so my dad emailed one of the guys and said, “Hey, my daughter had leukemia, and we’re looking at this gaming thing that you have going on. It seems really fun and we would like to help you out with that kind of stuff.” We got recruited – this is my third year coming to PAX and volunteering – so three years ago, they were like, “Hey, we are doing PAX this year, if you want to do it, Extra Life is working there and you can come along.” You get a free pass and get some breaks, but you also get to help out children at the children’s hospitals.

JG: Do you play a lot of games?

K: Yes. I really like video games. Especially multiplayer since my sister likes to play, too. I don’t really have a favorite….

JG: I know for me, it is hard to choose just one favorite, but do you have a top three of your go-to games?

K: Yes! I am a really old person, and I like Minecraft. That was the first game I ever played in my life.

JG: [Laughs] Oh, gosh, you just made me feel ancient!

K: It the first one I ever played. It’s a classic – I’d say it’s my favorite. My second one would be… like… little, free games on Xbox. They’re kinda short? I can’t think of a specific one.

JG: It’s hard to think sometimes when you get put on the spot.

K: Then probably… it’s not a genre, but I like the games where you can see the work people put into the games. Good graphic designs- even a character model where you can tell how much work went into it. I already like the game. Even one scene can change my whole perspective on a game. I really like people who do really good work and design on a game, really good coding.

JG: What’s a scene that’d be an example?

K: My sister plays this game called Undertale. She was playing it one day and I saw the opening scene. I really loved it. It was really well done – I felt it was really great. All the character models, her favorite was the little skeleton dude.

JG: The skeleton knight and a cape or the skeleton in the hoodie?

K: I think it was the skeleton knight? Yeah, the guy with the cape! I think that’s some really good design, so I think that’s really good work.

JG: You’re here with Extra Life – what’s it like volunteering here and basically being a spokesperson?

K: It’s really fun. You get to recruit other people into helping children and children’s hospitals. Plus, you get to have fun while doing it. You sign up and play games for 24 hours. You can play whatever you want, card games, video games. Hanging out with everybody who has been involved with Extra Life, it’s fun having conversations about video games because… I don’t have many friends who are interested in video games. So, it’s fun to talk about different kinds of games coming out or what they are doing later at PAX or what they are going to do on their lunch break. It’s fun to hang out with people who have the same interests as you.

JG: Are there any hard parts that you weren’t really expecting?

K: I didn’t know I had to talk to people! I thought you just stood there and gave people stuff.

JG: [Laughs] That would be nice. Has everyone been good when you talked with them?

K: Yeah, most people. Last year, because I was 11… not a lot of people who would listen to me because I was a child. That was pretty frustrating, but… either way, it’s pretty good. […] It’s cool to have people interviewing me now. It’s kind of weird! [Laughs]

JG: Did you play a lot of games when you were going through your treatments and recovery?

K: Yes, I would bring my Xbox and leave it connected to the TV in there. I played a lot of different games on my Xbox.

JG: Did you like games before that?

K: Yeah, I liked games before that. I never used to have any video games or a console or anything, so I’d go over to my friend’s house and then we’d go play. I think that’s why I like playing games with other people because that’s how I started liking video games.

JG: Was Minecraft the thing you played the most in the hospital?

K: Yes. Oh! I also played a lot of Overcooked. My younger sister got Overcooked for her birthday. We played a LOT of Overcooked. A lot of Minecraft. A lot of free games. There was also a game room where you can grab video games or different kinds of board games that you can grab and bring up to your room.

JG: What’s been your takeaway from events like PAX?

K: I think it’s a really good opportunity for people who want to help support children or just anything? But you can do it in a fun and good way. You are actually interested in doing it instead of just feeling like you have to because you feel bad.

JG: Does it make you feel hopeful that so many people are coming by the booth and showing interest?

K: Yeah! And really just how cool people will stop by and be like, “how do we get this?” you explain how you do it and they are like, “well, I want to give back, too!”

Don’t forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!