A few weeks ago, Vaughn Stewart III was in a hospital treatment room receiving a round of chemo and surfing the web with his iPhone to help pass the time. He read up on news reports about the health care bickering in Washington, D.C., and was especially concerned about the talk of pre-existing conditions and lifetime insurance caps.
At the time, the Anniston native and current Maryland resident was receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, marking his second battle with the C-word.
His first came in 2007 shortly after graduating from The Donoho School. He was diagnosed with acinic cell carcinoma — cancer of the salivary gland. After surgery, he underwent a series of scans; when each one came back clean, he considered it to be “another bullet dodged.”
Vaughn went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania, double-majoring in political science and sociology, and then to New York University School of Law, where he was an editor of the NYU Law Review. During that time, he served as a White House intern. After graduating, he clerked for the Hon. John T. Nixon in Nashville, Tenn. (Nixon had started his career as Anniston’s city attorney, where he knew Vaughn’s grandfather.)
Today, Vaughn is a regulatory attorney at WilmerHale, a large corporate firm in Washington. It is where he met Alex, the woman who would later become his wife, when both were working as summer associates.
One of his favorite memories from that time was when the summer associates took a Segway tour of D.C. It was such a hot day that they each took turns driving over a water hose for some quick relief. Alex decided to impress the others with her ability to maneuver the Segway backwards, not realizing how slowly it traveled in reverse. Once she came off the hose, she was drenched! Vaughn took the opportunity to whisk her away, giving them time alone to talk and get to know each other.
Some 18 months and many conversations later, Vaughn took Alex to the Lincoln Memorial on the ruse that they were meeting friends. His real intent was a marriage proposal. He had hired a photographer to snap photos of the event, and when he and Alex reached the top of the monument steps, he dropped to one knee.
Before he could actually say the words, however, Alex noticed the photographer and, thinking he was a tourist, apologized for getting in his shot. By the time Vaughn was able to pop the question, a crowd of actual tourists had gathered and were also taking pictures, cheering loudly when Alex happily accepted.
The two were married last summer in a beautiful ceremony in Chevy Chase, Md., but before they could celebrate their first anniversary, Vaughn discovered a swollen lymph node on the side of his neck. The doctor confirmed his worst fears: It was cancer.
Fortunately, the illness was caught in Stage 1, which his doctor explained was not a death sentence, but more like a lousy summer. After four rounds of chemo, Vaughn is now in remission and getting his life back to normal.
While he appreciates the sentiment behind those who congratulate him for “beating cancer,” he feels his recovery is the result of other factors such as early diagnosis, connections to renowned facilities and excellent health insurance.
“I owe my life to my fortunate socio-economic circumstance,” he said. “I live in one of the wealthiest counties in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country of all time, yet there are people who die because they can’t afford health insurance.”
That was about the time when Vaughn decided he wanted to run for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, the lower legislative body of the state’s general assembly (not to be confused with delegates to political conventions).
What his plans for the future do not include is seeking higher office. “To me, the purpose of life is to make as big of a positive difference as possible in the short time we have on the planet,” he said. “Signing up to be a backbencher in a gridlocked Congress doesn’t strike me as living your best life.”
He and Alex also look forward to starting a family. Vaughn’s ideal situation would be for his wife to continue her work as a litigator while he serves as a Maryland delegate and a stay-at-home dad. “I like the idea of our children growing up with a mother who is the family’s breadwinner,” he said.
And what does his father, former Anniston mayor Vaughn Stewart II, think about his son’s political endeavors?
“Vaughn continues to make his mom and me proud,” Stewart said. “He has always used his passion, generosity and empathy to serve his community, and we’re thrilled he’s chosen public service as an avenue to serve even further.”
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.