News Stories

Focusing on family

By Army Spc. Amy Carle | Defense Information School | January 13, 2016

FORT MEADE, Md. --

Thirteen-year-old Kate Gatewood’s body was wracked by violent spasms. Her father, mother and brother were all with her in the hospital, but they were unable to do anything to take away the pain caused by a drug used during her leukemia treatment.

Her father, Air Force Master Sgt. Bryan Gatewood, an instructor at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, choked up as he recounted the moment. His voice cracked as he remembered the family members lying with her, grasping her tightly, and trying to use their bodies to hold her as she  convulsed uncontrollably.

“That’s when you break down, because you just lose everything,” he said. “That’s probably one of the times you look at it and go, ‘OK. Got to open up.’ It pulls you closer together.”

That moment, one of the most difficult during Kate Gatewood’s six-month battle with leukemia, illustrated the family’s great strength.

By standing together throughout Kate’s cancer treatment, the family members not only helped one another through a difficult time but also found that they grew closer together.

The Gatewoods had always been a tightly knit unit. Kate Gatewood remembers an idyllic childhood that included riding a giant Ferris wheel with her father and playing Mad Libs over walkie-talkies during a family trip.

She was a precocious child from the start.  When she was almost 2, and her father was deployed to Cypress, he was able to make short calls home. During one call, all he could hear was endless chatter in the background. He asked his wife, Glenda Gatewood, what was happening. As he recounted the story, his eyes sparkled with amusement.

“That’s your daughter,” his wife told him. “She has started talking, and she has not stopped talking since.”

It seems he has infinite stories to tell about her. He hung his head in mock shame as he recounted stories about his daughter cursing in full sentences at just 2 years old, or yelling out about the “Austin Powers” character Fat Bastard during a wedding rehearsal dinner.

“I’m a terrible dad,” he said, practically beaming.

Kate Gatewood, now 19, obviously doesn’t think so. She is full of praise for both of her parents.

At the age of 10, she decided she wanted to be an actor. Her parents found an audition for her, and while she didn’t get the part, she remembers that moment with admiration.

“I thought it was awesome they would even take me to go do that because a lot of parents would be like, ‘Acting is not a stable career. You’re not going to do that,’ ” she said. 

The bond between father and daughter is evident. They finish stories for each other and bicker about which one of them is right, and Kate Gatewood keeps giggling while her father talks. Jokes are part of what the family does to get through tough times, she said.

The day she and her family received her diagnosis, she was lying in a hospital bed waiting for test results. Her older brother, Austin Gatewood, came into the room and quoted a line from the comedy “Talladega Nights.”

“We’re just going to have to put you out of your misery,” he said, moving toward her with a pillow.

Austin Gatewood was only 15 when his sister was diagnosed, but he still spent nearly every day with her in the hospital, playing video games on a tiny television the family brought into her room. The time they spent together

during her illness changed their relationship.

“My brother and I got a lot closer,” Kate Gatewood said. “I’ve always

known he was there for me, but having him in the hospital every day … and even when I was really upset, he’d be there to try to cheer me up. It just kind of made me appreciate him a lot more.”

The family members worked hard to find ways to stay positive and have fun. They joined two other families to cook Thanksgiving dinner and brought it to the hospital so families and nurses could have a home-cooked meal for the holiday.  They even threw a surprise birthday party for Austin Gatewood, which they managed to plan from Kate’s tiny hospital room.

“We planned this entire party while all four of us were in my hospital room,” she said. “My brother had no idea.  He was that absorbed in his video games.”

Her father interjected, “His present was even in the room with him!”

The Gatewoods also credit their nurses with helping them through this time. Kate Gatewood remembers how the nurses would sometimes come into her room just to hang out and watch television together.

“All of the nurses loved us because they could walk into our room, and we would all be smiling most of the time and laughing about something,” she said.

Even with the family’s positivity, it was a hard time. Bryan and Glenda

Gatewood struggled sometimes, but he remembers that they did it together.

“We kind of switched roles,” he said. “When it was time for her to break down, I was strong. When it was time for me to break down, she was strong. We were there for each other like that.”

A month after Kate Gatewood started treatment, her cancer had gone into remission. In December, five months later, she was able to leave the hospital and get back to the life she had left behind.

On Dec. 3, 2015, Kate Gatewood was given a clean five-year cancer screen at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida. She is now considered cancer-free, though she said she will still need annual screenings for the rest of her life.

The experience has changed her. She no longer wants to be an actor, and she is studying anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She said she wants to be a history teacher.

“It wasn’t as impactful, I guess, as what I want my life to be like now,” she said about her previous ambition. “I want to do something that will help a lot of people.”

She also said she’s become more fearless, determined to try everything, even the things that terrify her.

“If there’s something you think you want to do, just go for it,” she said. “Who knows? Tomorrow you may not be here.”

Her father echoed the sentiment.

“Be there for the people you love,” he said. “Take the time to be with them and let them know you love them because you never know when the last day might be the last day.”

He paused for a minute.

“I don’t wish anything like this on any family, ever. It was hard, but it brought us closer together as a family. It made us stronger as a family. I wouldn’t do it any other way. I wouldn’t go back and change anything.”