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Mourning for a young newcomer

Family, co-workers remember Bryce Laughlin, who died at age 22 weeks after moving to Lake Placid

Bryce Laughlin (Provided photo)

LAKE PLACID — The people who miss Bryce Laughlin say he was the kind of guy who just wanted those around him to be happy.

Laughlin moved to Lake Placid in March and died last month of pneumonia after contracting COVID-19. He was 22 years old.

Laughlin is remembered as a kind-hearted person, good to his core, non-judgmental and accepting of people from all walks of life.

“He wanted people to be happy, and when he was there, you were,” said Bonnie Ingram, co-owner of a Chesapeake, Virginia, restaurant where Laughlin worked for over three years.

Bryce Laughlin poses with his mother, Audrey Raspe Gudenkauf. (Provided photo)

A new adventure

Laughlin’s father, Kevin, remarried and moved from Virginia to Iowa. His mother, Audrey Gudenkauf, was living in Kansas. For Laughlin, Lake Placid was a new adventure.

When Laughlin decided to move here, his parents worried about him — but according to his mother, he was excited to show them that he could “do it on his own.”

“He kept saying, ‘You know what, Mom? I have to show you that I can do it on my own,'” Gudenkauf said. “When he said he was moving to New York, I just had to let him do it. He did well. He drove up there by himself, transferred his mail and got new bank accounts.”

Bryce Laughlin, right, smiles with his father Kevin Laughlin. (Provided photo)

Laughlin found a place to live and got a job at Hannaford supermarket.

He was pronounced dead 41 days after moving here, and just a few weeks after celebrating his 22nd birthday.

Laughlin’s official date of death is Monday, April 12. His mother believes, based on his phone records, he may have died even earlier than that.

He leaves behind a family who loved him.

“He was just a kind soul, a big teddy bear, just a great kid,” Gudenkauf said. “I miss him dearly.”

“He was spreading his wings”

Laughlin loved to play video games and watch gory movies. He had dreams of starting a comic book studio someday.

Together with a friend from Virginia, Laughlin had “hundreds and hundreds of pages of comic book characters” that they created themselves, according to Gudenkauf.

While attending Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Virginia — he graduated in 2017 — he was in the drama club, and on the crew team for four years.

Laughlin also loved listening to audiobooks. Ingram, his former boss who co-owns the Bypass 168 restaurant in Chesapeake, Virginia, said even after Laughlin moved away he kept in touch with the restaurant’s chef. They talked about authors they both liked.

Laughlin worked at the Bypass for more than three years. He started as a dishwasher and got promoted to line cook. While working there, Laughlin would bring in books. The restaurant’s staff would pass the books around, read them and talk about them during their shifts, according to Ingram.

“We all remember Bryce,” she said. “He came in the day before he moved to New York to say goodbye to us. … He came in and I gave him a big hug, he gave our chef, Mason, a big hug.

“We were so proud of him,” she added. “He was spreading his wings. I hurt for Bryce and his family.”

Ingram remembered that the restaurant’s chef was the first person Laughlin came out to.

“I guess he was expecting Mason to be shocked,” Ingram said. She laughed. “He was really quick-witted, and I liked that about him. You’d say something smart to him, and he’d come right back.”

Ingram said Laughlin was “a great kid all around,” and became part of the restaurant family.

His co-workers at the Bypass always told him he looked like Russell, a character in the 2009 Pixar movie “Up.” One Halloween, he dressed up as the character, Ingram said.

“He just wanted to make people laugh,” she said.

“We miss him”

Laughlin made an impact on people’s lives, no matter how short a time he was in them.

He worked at Hannaford in Lake Placid for just a few weeks before he died. His direct supervisor, Kayley Wells, said he “fit right in” with them.

Bryce had Asperger syndrome and asthma, but he overcame any challenges he faced. Wells said he tried to do jobs like collecting shopping carts even though it was difficult for him.

“He was one of my little babies,” she said.

While working at Hannaford, he changed the color of his hair often. The last time Wells saw him, his coif was blue and purplish-pink.

“We’re the island of misfits. We all have things going on, we all have the crazy hair, everything,” she said.

“At first, he wasn’t comfortable going on (the cash) register because he was dyslexic,” she added. “After a little convincing, he was on register and he was shining. We didn’t have to help him. He was there. He was friendly.”

The news of his death hit his co-workers hard. They wore tie-dye for two days in honor of his ever-changing hair, and his locker in the break room remains empty.

Wells said Laughlin was “remarkable.”

“We miss him,” she said.

“I feel he wasn’t treated”

About six days before he died, Laughlin sought help from a doctor at Mountain Medical Services in Saranac Lake.

He took a COVID-19 test, and the result was negative, according to Gudenkauf. He had also tested negative when he arrived in New York in early March.

Laughlin was told by the doctor that he had the flu, according to Gudenkauf.

Records from that visit appear to show that during the 29-minute visit, no other tests were performed, according to Gudenkauf.

“I feel he wasn’t treated,” she said.

The doctor who saw Laughlin could not be reached by press time Wednesday.

During the week leading up to his death, Laughlin told his mom he was having trouble breathing. He had a fever of 102 degrees. He was coughing and so out of breath that when he walked from his bedroom to his bathroom, he had to stop halfway to catch his breath. He was worried he was going to run out of the inhaler he had, his mom said.

It was because of his fever that he couldn’t go back to work at Hannaford, despite testing negative for COVID-19.

Both of Laughlin’s parents work in the medical field: She’s a CT scan technologist in an emergency room, and he’s a paramedic. Gudenkauf has worked with more patients with COVID-19 than she can count. She urged her son to go to the emergency room.

That’s the last discussion she had with him. The Friday before he died, he texted her asking if they could talk.

“I said, ‘Is everything OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah, other than having the flu, I’m OK.’ He sounded terrible. He couldn’t breathe,” Gudenkauf said. “I said, ‘You need to go back to the doctor tomorrow.’ He said, ‘OK, Mom. I’ll go back tomorrow.'”

Death not yet reported

Laughlin’s death has not yet been reported by either the county or state Health Department.

The Essex County Health Department declined to comment when asked last week why Laughlin’s death was not reported by the department in its daily COVID-19 updates, and whether he is the youngest person to die from an illness related to COVID-19 in this county. The department said this week that his official cause of death is still pending.

Laughlin’s mother says the family doesn’t have his official death certificate yet, but she knows based on the autopsy that he had COVID-19 in his lungs.

The state Department of Health’s reporting of COVID-19 deaths in this county remains lower than what has been reported by the county Health Department. Asked why that is — and why a person who died from an illness related to COVID-19 might not be counted as a COVID death — the state Health Department replied with a statement.

“Fatality data are reported by hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities in all regions of New York state on a daily basis to the New York state Department of Health through the Health Electronic Response Data System,” wrote health department Public Information Officer Jill Montag.

Fundraiser for family

An online fundraiser to help the family pay for Laughlin’s funeral service and related expenses is open now.

The fundraising goal has been set at $14,000. Just over $5,000 had been raised as of Wednesday afternoon.

Those interested in contributing to the GoFundMe campaign can visit tinyurl.com/brycelaughlinfundraiser.