In May, Jackson Vaughan delivered his valedictorian speech to the Bakersfield High School class of 2018.
He offered words of inspiration to his classmates as they set sail into the future. He didn’t have to look far for material.
It was another item checked off a list he began compiling years ago, after a brush with death at an early age changed the course of his life.
“I’ve had so many people tell me I couldn’t do this or that – so many that I made a list,” Vaughan laughed. “If someone tells you, you can’t do something, try to prove them wrong.”
Eighteen-year-old Vaughan has adopted that can-do attitude as his credo since he was little. He was just 3 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 liver cancer. He underwent chemotherapy at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto before receiving a liver transplant.
But Jackson’s small body rejected it.
He was placed on a machine to replicate the liver’s functions, but his blood pressure abruptly plunged perilously low. By then, he had endeared himself to his team of doctors and nurses who struggled for 36 seemingly endless minutes to restore his heartbeat. A last-ditch thrust of epinephrine to the heart was the Hail Mary pass the child needed.
Miraculously tests showed no brain damage and Jackson was given a second transplant.
“I never knew I was in trouble. I thought I was a normal kid,” Vaughan said. “Looking back now, I see how much borrowed time I’ve been on.”
He remembers little from those days that had his parents Jeff and Jenny fraught with worry and uncertainty. But he’s never forgotten eating popsicles with chocolate milk, which he still enjoys.
Jackson slowly returned to his regularly scheduled childhood and began playing baseball in the second grade.
“I was never the kid who was very good at it, but I liked being part of a team.”
At 5 feet 7 inches, Vaughan is considered a short pitcher. But what he lacks in height, he doubles in speed with fastballs at 89 mph. A varsity player his freshman and sophomore years, he pitched for Bakersfield Baseball Academy the remainder of high school.
He attended a camp held at Stanford that would be his last opportunity to be seen by recruiters.
“My heart was racing; there were just a couple of scouts when it was my turn,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘If this is all I’ve got, I have to give it my all.’”
When he finished, more than two dozen scouts were watching, including one from his dream school, the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He will attend the school in the fall as a member of its baseball team, will check yet another item off his list and make NCAA history by becoming the first liver transplant recipient to play Division I baseball. The NCAA cleared his use of prescribed anti-rejection medications.
“My goal is to never stop pitching,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan hopes to play in the majors someday. In the meantime, he’ll continue to root for his San Francisco Giants.
While most peers in his shoes might have chosen to write about the medical crisis and beating cancer in their college application essay, Jackson did not.
“I didn’t want people to think I was guilting them or selling out what had happened,” he said.
Instead, he wrote about a trip with a friend to Mineral Falls, when he veered off the trail, came upon a pool of water and dove in to retrieve a rock he carried down the river and has to this day.
“He does have such an amazing spirit of resilience,” said his mother, Jenny. “He works so hard at everything he does and even when he does not succeed or has setbacks, it does not discourage him. He just digs in and works harder.”
Positive and upbeat, Vaughan’s graduation speech included what has been his motivation since his experience 15 years ago.
“I got through it because of hope,” he said. “They knew I was a fighter. All my life I never gave up. I owe it to the people who saved my life to keep on going and be the best I can truly be. It is only right.” ￼