Kat Brown-Blake enjoyed a good, 15-year run as a lawyer in Florida. It was solid work, challenging work.
But something was missing: a sense of bigger purpose.
“I think I was able to do good for the state and for the people in the state,” she said. “But I didn’t feel like I was doing something I could come home and be proud of and look at my children and say, ‘I’ve made a difference for your future.’”
And so, having caught the communications bug while helping some agencies with their newsletters and social media posts, Brown-Blake sought out a university where she might learn the practical and professional skills she would need to earn a job in health communications.
She found Western’s Master of Media in Journalism & Communication (MMJC) program and moved with her family to Canada.
“Within a week, we (students) had cameras in our hands. We were learning to use these massive broadcasting cameras and editing on Avid and Audition (multimedia platforms), and I was so out of my depth. Right out of the gate, it was ‘you’ve got four projects (and) one is due next week.’”
Brown-Blake will graduate among Western’s fall Class of 2020 and will join more than 315,000 individuals around the world who count themselves as Western alumni. More information and profiles on the Class of 2020 can be found here.
For anyone, the one-year MMJC program is intense. For Brown-Blake – with a husband working as a nurse, and three school-aged children – earning her degree meant attending classes during the day and returning home in late afternoon to help the kids with their homework. Her husband would return from his work shift to take over home responsibilities, and Brown-Blake would head to the broadcast studio once the kids were in bed.
“I did a lot of nights. But, yeah, I actually had more time with them than I did previously,” she said. “They’re great kids. I’m very lucky.”
When it became clear partway through the school year that COVID-19 would be a danger – clear to the family even before the first case came to Canada, and long before classes went online – they prepared for the quarantining, stockpiling and sanitizing regimen they knew would be inevitable: They had been there before.
Family first, and always
Here, it is important to back up 12 years to the birth of their daughter.
Because it’s one thing, a big thing, to have demanding careers and become new parents; it is something else entirely for that firstborn baby to be sick, unrelentingly sick, for months without a diagnosis.
And it is a tsunami of everything when that diagnosis finally comes and it’s a beastly, rare, systemic cancer called multisystem Langerhans cell histiocytosis.
What followed was a nightmare for their little girl: liver failure, chemotherapy treatments, agonizing hospital stays, zero immune-system protection. “It was like walking through the caverns of hell holding your child and wishing you could throw yourself in between her and the flames that have you surrounded,” Brown-Blake would later write in her blog.
Their world became laser-focused and every day became a supplication. Child, make it through this hour. Child, make it through treatments. Child, be well again. Child, thrive. And she did.
Their eldest child is still immunosuppressed but has beaten back everything life has thrown at her – and is so smart she probably could be enrolled in university classes, Brown-Blake boasts. “We’re almost 11 years into remission and six years post the last liver emergency. And she is a normal, brilliant 12-year-old-going-on-30.”
So, when the COVID-19 shutdown came in March it wasn’t nothing – but they weren’t caught unawares either. They redoubled their cleaning regimen, and the family rarely went outside except for solitary nature hikes.
In her own program, Brown-Blake pivoted from a planned video with a non-profit to a podcast instead, and moved her chemo-moms capstone project onto the news website she had built and designed for the whole class.
While her eldest daughter doggedly tackled online classes, the two youngest children became participants in Brown-Blake’s videos as they explained how to play math games and became photo subjects for an infographic on how to make sweet-potato pie.
It was a different kind of intensity than before and, Brown-Blake said, not as difficult for the family as it might seem from the outside.
“We learned a long time ago how to handle five balls, on fire, in the air at the same time.”
‘Relish in the joy in life’
Brown-Blake was one of two second-career parents in a class that was mostly much younger. But she doesn’t want to leave the impression that the program was more difficult for her than for her peers. Everyone was carrying burdens of different sorts, she said, so it was okay if not everyone knew the unique pressures she faced.
“When you’re 22 and you’re handling a program as intense as this, it’s as much as you can take. By the time you’re 40, you’ve had enough experience to be able to handle this and everything else. So I don’t feel like they didn’t ‘get it’ because they were 22 or 23 years old. They shouldn’t ‘get it’ and I don’t want them to. Let them enjoy this for now.”
While she doesn’t downplay the stress of the past year of school – or the traumas that continue to echo in the lives of families living through chronic illness – she also emphasizes the good that continues to emerge.
“People say you’re only given what you can handle. I don’t believe that’s true. I think bad stuff happens and it’s okay to not be able to handle it. And the bad stuff can’t be blamed on any higher power; it’s not that God’s giving you a kid with cancer. I can’t believe that my faith would have survived cancer, any of this, if that was true.
“Bad stuff happens and you just do the best you can to get through it and lean on people for help. If you didn’t experience the bad in life, you wouldn’t be able to identify and relish in the joy in life as well. You have to have that juxtaposition to be able to understand how good the joyous parts are.”