ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I went looking for a friendly face in the tumult, the biggest, brightest, most infectious, most uplifting smile I could find. A smile that radiates across the room and brightens the soul. A smile that inspires other smiles.
We need that, yes?
But in the aftermath of a contentious presidential election and amid a relentless pandemic, smiles are sometimes rare commodities. And then I found Kyle Stepp.
His luminous grin is in every photo I have seen of him. Here he is smiling atop Wheeler Peak. Here he is smiling after cycling 100 miles with his buddies. Here he is smiling with his dog, Barsa. Here he is smiling with children in the pediatric ward of the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center.
I imagine he smiles in his sleep.
It’s a good thing, that smile. But what makes it even more amazing is that it belongs to a young man whose rocky path in life might have given a lesser person a permanent, pain-filled scowl.
An only child, he was cast aside by warring parents.
He was trundled off to a group home in Las Vegas, Nevada, for two years. After a failed attempt to reunite with his father, he moved in with his grandparents in Albuquerque in 2007.
A year later, he was diagnosed with stage 4 osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that largely strikes young people. He was 14.
He lost most of his high school years, undergoing 18 rounds of inpatient chemotherapy at UNM Hospital and 14 surgeries, which included removing part of his left femur, tibia and knee and replacing them with metal prosthetics.
The cancer ward became his home, the patients and staff his family. Nine
pediatric cancer patients became his best friends. None of them survived.
Somehow, Stepp’s resilience did. And so did his smile.
“In my life, I’ve wondered why did God, why did the universe give me all these adversities?” said Stepp, 26. “But what I’ve learned is that when you go through certain life-changing challenges it blesses you with the privilege of providing you a new lens from which to see things.”
It also showed him that he could help others who travel those rocky, lonely, perilous paths.
“I dedicated my life to the legacy of those kids who didn’t make it, who taught me that tomorrow is not guaranteed,” he said. “I want to turn my pain to purpose, to go through the trenches of hardships so that one day I can help make the path easier for others by giving them hope that they can get through their journey because I’ve been on that journey, too.”
As a teen, he served as a national spokesman and ambassador for the Sunshine Kids Foundation and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. While a student at the University of New Mexico in 2014, he founded the LoboTHON Dance Marathon, which raises donations for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
He is also an ambassador for the Lobo Cancer Challenge charity bike race and sits on the board of directors for Camp Enchantment, a summer camp for pediatric cancer patients that he revived after it lost its funding.
He’s a gregarious, active sort who seems to know everybody, from the members of the New Mexico United soccer team to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. He bikes, he hikes, he skis, refusing to let his weakened leg stop him from much.
“I’m the guy who’s always up for a challenge,” he said.
But on Oct. 17, his path, quite literally, took another rocky turn. Barreling down the slopes at Angel Fire, he lost control of his mountain bike and slammed into a tree, irreparably snapping his prosthetic and dislodging it from what remains of his femur.
“It was a day I knew would happen someday,” he said. “It’s why for 10 years I said I wanted to make the most of my leg while I still had it.”
On Oct. 20, his left leg was deemed unsalvageable and had to be amputated. Two days later, he was already up and walking with a walker and crutches. Four days later, he was home. He’s already back at the gym, training for the day he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.
“For 10 years, I have been unable to run, and now I will be able to,” he said. “I can’t wait to ski this winter, be competitive and get back on my bike.”
About that bike. On the evening we were initially supposed to speak, his mountain bike was stolen.
That, combined with a rough physical therapy session, he said, meant it was not a day for talking. Or smiling.
“Yes, there are days when I struggle,” he said. “There are days when I don’t feel strong. It’s OK not to be OK.”
It’s also OK to rely on others for help. Friends have opened a Road to Resilience fund to defray his medical costs. After those are covered, Stepp said he hopes that any remaining donations can be used to start a fund through the UNM Foundation to support youths facing the loss of a limb.
It’s another way for Stepp to turn his pain to purpose.
“Through tests and trials there will be triumphs,” he said.
And smiles, I hope. Lots and lots of them.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.