Behind the scenes with a remarkable young woman and the family who saved her life
By Laura Ross
She is the Dragon Slayer.
Barely into adulthood, Kinsey Morrison, 23, has faced cancer, death, heart-stopping moments (literally), discrimination, relapses and more. She’s also excelled as a student and packed in more activism at a national level than most people will accomplish in a lifetime. She’s ready to take on the world and make a difference for others, and it’s not a stretch to imagine her on the national political stage in her future.
Kinsey – who was named after Kinsey Milhone, the main character in Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series – is the oldest daughter of retired teacher Audrey Morrison and Gilda’s Club of Kentuckiana CEO Karen Morrison. She has two sisters, Jillian, 20, and Teagan, 16. Their tight-knit family has been through many storms but has flourished as a core group of strong women who don’t take “no” as an answer – in any part of life.
Kinsey acquired the “Dragon Slayer” moniker when she was five years old and faced a horrifying diagnosis that every parent fears. “I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, which is a rare bone marrow failure disease that is often confused with leukemia, where my bone marrow does not make blood cells and platelets,” said Kinsey. “On Mother’s Day 2002, my parents were told I had four weeks to live and to call hospice. My moms said, ‘No, not going to do that.’”
With Kinsey fading and time ticking, Audrey and Karen moved their family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and put all of their hope in specialist Dr. David Margolis. He maintained a grim prognosis but worked feverishly to save her life. One option was having a matched sibling bone marrow donor, but at the time, sister Jillian was not a match. As Kinsey and her parents fought through treatment, the family was blessed with the birth of Teagan in 2003.
“What makes it especially crazy is Teagan was born healthy but premature,” said Kinsey. “And she was a perfect match. Since she was premature, we had to wait for her to reach her goal weight, but in that time, I went into remission on my own.”
The family was stunned. After so much waiting and painful treatments, just prior to the transplant, Dr. Margolis did one more bone marrow biopsy and found Kinsey had 85-percent cellularity, which was a miraculous and unexplainable remission.
“Teagan was born to save my life, but we have never needed the match,” said Kinsey. “But, if I do relapse, she is there for me.”
The family was not out of the woods. The fight to save Kinsey led to Karen and Audrey losing all of their life savings and accumulating $250,000 in medical debt. “And that was with great health insurance,” Kinsey quipped.
The family returned to Louisville, Karen began work with Gilda’s Club and Kinsey settled into school – and a public speaking career. Six-year-old Kinsey accompanied her parents to a United Blood Services fundraiser and instead of being acknowledged at their table, Kinsey took matters into her own hands.
“I said, I think they could hear me better if I just went to the stage,” Kinsey laughed. She gave an impromptu speech, calling herself the Dragon Slayer and launching a speaking career that now includes more than 60 high-profile speeches across the country. She figures since that first impassioned speech at age six, Kinsey the Dragon Slayer took that energy throughout her school career and teen years to speak and fundraise in front of more than 25,000 people.
“In all my public speaking, my refrain has been the Dragon Slayer,” said Kinsey. “If you are out there supporting a charity, you are a dragon slayer, too.”
Kinsey excelled at St. Francis School but faced another frightening health scare over Thanksgiving weekend 2007. On one terrifying day, her heart stopped seven times due to myocarditis, an inflammation of her heart muscle. She survived that only to face Grave’s (thyroid) disease in 2008, and four years ago, she was diagnosed with moderate aplastic anemia, which is currently manageable. Despite her health challenges, she excelled in academics, sports and impassioned charity work.
Like any mom, Audrey Morrison is quick to list her daughter’s accomplishments. “She is a National Merit Scholar, a Coca-Cola Scholar and one of only five national high school winners of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award in 2014,” Audrey said. That was before graduating from St. Francis School and heading to Stanford University, where Kinsey graduated in 2018 with a degree in international relations and Spanish. Along the way, she also picked up a Bell Award from WLKY-TV and a Youth in Philanthropy Award. She has raised a combined $500,000 for Gilda’s Club, the Red Cross, the Aplastic Anemia Foundation and more.
“I really didn’t know if I could live with losing a child, so I did everything I could,” said Karen Morrison. “Of nearly equal importance to trying to save her was the idea that we might not be successful and so ensuring she had a high quality of life – however long that might be – was important.”
That translated to “campouts” in the hospital, fun crafts and games when Kinsey was ill or in quarantine and indulgent day trips to cheer her up. “A few times, we took trips to Louisville, IV pole sticking out of the sunroof,” added Karen. “We were determined to live life to the fullest and her doctor was very supportive of that.”
At Stanford, Kinsey nurtured her love of activism, which led, among many efforts, directly to the Supreme Court. When the 2015 marriage equality case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Kinsey knew what to do. Her parents had been together for 25 years, and had a 1995 commitment ceremony, but growing up in a same-sex family in Kentucky was frustrating for Kinsey and her sisters. “We were a family,” she said. “But it just didn’t seem fair that legal representation and benefits weren’t available for them. I felt my parents had fought so hard and given up so much in their lives to save my life. Everyone contributed to my survival, so working for marriage equality was a way to show my appreciation.”
Kinsey and her sisters made a video called “Sanctity” at the beginning of 2015 that showed how their family’s love was not compromised by being in a same-sex union. The video was picked up nationally and went viral, and before she knew it, Kinsey was speaking at the rally outside the Supreme Court on the day of the arguments. She also helped write part of the brief in support of children of LGBTQ+ parents. National media helped tell her story. “Being a part of that was amazing and a lifelong dream,” said Kinsey. “It’s one of the things I am most proud of.”
In a family of impassioned women, activism comes naturally. “I still struggle with having fun and enjoying my life because I know how short it is,” said Kinsey. “I focus so much on activism, but I know how lucky I am to have been born in a family with a lot of opportunity.”
Kinsey has her sights set on a political future, and as a new college graduate, dove feet first into Andy Beshear’s campaign for governor. Working together, Kinsey, her moms and sister drove state-wide to help campaign. “We connected with 7,183 people, walked 230 miles and saw parts of our city and state that we didn’t know existed,” said Kinsey.
Her perseverance paid off and Kinsey was thrilled to accept a position with the Beshear administration in January as a communications advisor, where she will consult on speechwriting and policy research. “That boggles my mind and yet doesn’t shock me a bit,” said Karen Morrison.
“Kinsey is my hero,” she added. “Her energy, passion and warmth are magnetic and infectious. When I consider Kinsey’s path, filled with twists and turns in the dark, I know the grit and tenacity she had to keep going, always at an accelerated pace. She will no doubt change the world and for the better.”
“My goal is to make more people heard and be understood and represented. When people have a voice, more people will be treated as they should,” said Kinsey, who plans to build her political future and keep raising funds for causes that touch her heart. “If you can find that passion, whether it’s glamorous or the everyday grind, is crucial, no matter what you choose to do in life.”
“Cancer is an equalizer,” the young Dragon Slayer with a bright future added. “Life is fragile and that is a reminder to me always. You never know what people are going through. We all have this vulnerability and none of us is guaranteed time. That makes me a little less combative, especially in politics. It’s people and family first. Always.” V