Americans, please take Luke Letlow's death as the cautionary tale that it is
Startbosshogg/Wikimedia Commons, Mike Baker/Twitter

Luke Letlow was supposed to be sworn into Congress on January 3. Instead, his family will be mourning his passing.

Yesterday it was announced that the 41-year-old Congressman-elect from Louisiana's northeastern 5th District had died of complications from COVID-19. He had posted a tweet confirming his diagnosis on December 18th, saying he was "at home resting, following all CDC guidelines, quarantine protocols, and the recommendations of my doctors" and thanking everyone for their kind words and prayers.

Three days later, he was posting from the hospital. Two days after that, he was transferred to a different hospital and placed in the ICU. A statement posted on this Twitter account said that he was in stable condition and receiving Remdesivir and steroids—similar treatments that President Trump received when he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Six days after that, he was gone. He is survived by his wife Julia, their 3-year-old son Jeremiah, and 9-month-old daughter Jacqueline.

From all indications, Letlow was a healthy 41-year-old. His doctor said Letlow had no underlying health conditions that would increase his risk of death from the virus, and the conditions that led to his death were "all COVID-related." He received the best known treatments for the disease, but when he suffered a heart attack following a procedure, there was nothing doctors could do.



"Luke had such a positive spirit, and a tremendously bright future ahead of him. He was looking forward to serving the people of Louisiana in Congress, and we were excited to welcome him to our delegation where he was ready to make an even greater impact on our state and our Nation," the Louisiana congressional delegation said in a statement.

According to NPR, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Letlow "fought passionately for his point of view and dedicated his life to public service."

"As the House grieves Congressman-elect Letlow's passing, our sorrow is compounded by the grief of so many other families who have also suffered lives cut short by this terrible virus. May it be a comfort to Luke's wife Julia and their children Jeremiah and Jacqueline that so many mourn their loss and are praying for them at this sad time," she added.

While we express our condolences to his loved ones who are undoubtedly in shock, we also must see this tragedy for the cautionary tale that it is. While he was not an outright COVID denier, Letlow hadn't consistently followed pandemic guidelines. Multiple photos have shown him gathered with others without masks or social distancing in the past couple of months, including at his own victory party after his run-off election win on December 5.

The risks of COVID-19 are a bit like Russian roulette. While statistically, the risks are higher for people in older age groups and people with compromised immune systems, stories like Letlow's happen. No one knows how their body is going to respond.

Looking just at the people in the government who have contracted the virus, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to the outcomes. President Trump, who is the higher risk category, ended up hospitalized but pulled through. Chris Christie was in the same boat. Senator Chuck Grassley is 87 years old and recovered from the virus seemingly without incident. And how this healthy 41-year-old dies 11 days after his diagnosis. It's a crapshoot in so many ways.

As we head into the new year, we face two starkly different truths: 1) We have an effective vaccine for this disease and largely know how to prevent its spread. That's wonderful news. And 2) We are set to lose another 100,000+ Americans to this disease just in the next couple of months. Truth number two is incredibly tragic, especially considering truth number one. We can see the finish line in the distance, but we keep putting obstacles in our own way that make it harder to get there quickly.

We can blame the incompetency of the government charged with protecting public health and getting vaccines rolled out and administered, and there are certainly valid criticisms to be placed there. But so much of our problem is wrapped up in our own behaviors. People refusing to social distance or wear masks. People fearing potential government overreach more than they fear an actual deadly virus. People devouring misinformation like candy and spewing it back out as if it's valid. People still not grasping how the virus spreads, despite months and months of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists explaining it ad nauseum.

Will Luke Letlow's death be the wake-up call the U.S. needs to take this virus seriously and hold the line a little longer? Will his story inspire others to cancel that birthday party or avoid that New Year's Eve bash? Will younger, healthy Americans see themselves in this tale and take it as a warning, or will denial continue?

Who knows. But let's hope. That's really all we can do at this point.

via Kat Stickler / TikTok

Kat Stickler has created a hilarious series of videos about her husband that a lot of women say they can relate to because theirs behave the exact same way.

Stickler is a mother who shares funny videos about her domestic life on TikTok where she's earned over six million followers.

In the videos, she transforms into her husband Mike by throwing on a backward baseball cap and adopting a deeper voice. From the videos, it's pretty clear that Mike always wants some sort of praise for doing the things he's supposed to do.

The interesting thing about the couple is that they went from dating to parents pretty much overnight. Three months after their first date, Kat was pregnant and they were married.

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via Kat Stickler / TikTok

Kat Stickler has created a hilarious series of videos about her husband that a lot of women say they can relate to because theirs behave the exact same way.

Stickler is a mother who shares funny videos about her domestic life on TikTok where she's earned over six million followers.

In the videos, she transforms into her husband Mike by throwing on a backward baseball cap and adopting a deeper voice. From the videos, it's pretty clear that Mike always wants some sort of praise for doing the things he's supposed to do.

The interesting thing about the couple is that they went from dating to parents pretty much overnight. Three months after their first date, Kat was pregnant and they were married.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."