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Family overcomes hurricane to struggle with daughter’s cancer

When Hurricane Katrina was over and the damages were assessed and the tears were shed, few people thought things could get any worse. But the Hopkins family had no idea just how worse things were about to become for them.

Jack and Jessica Hopkins and their five-year-old daughter Chloe and fourteen-month-old daughter Tori lived in the Gulf Coast before the hurricane. The family lost their home and all their possessions when the hurricane ripped through their lives. Both parents lost their jobs and with no place to live and no income, they were forced to leave the place they had called home for years.

The family relocated to Picayune to live with Jessica’s parents, Beabe Campbell and Frank Doodwin. However, when they arrived, the family discovered that the grandparents’ home had also been severely damaged by the hurricane. The six-member family was forced to reside in the garage adjoining what was left of the house.

Under these cramped conditions, the family began to rebuild their lives. However, Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance funds did not cover the amount of damages the grandparents’ home sustained, leaving the house unlivable.

Then the worst happened: thirteen-month-old Tori was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma stage four.

According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, neuroblastoma is the most common tumor in infants younger than one year of age and a common solid tumor. The term solid tumor is used to distinguish between a localized mass of tissue and leukemia.

“Neuroblastoma is aggressive, life-threatening, and attacks a child’s nervous system,” said Wayne L. Furman, M.D., a doctor at St. Jude who has been treating childhood cancers there since 1983.

Neuroblastoma is the most common childhood cancer and symptoms can include a hard, painless mass in the neck, an abdominal mass causing severe pain, irritability and decreased appetite, bone pain from the tumor spreading to the skeleton or weakness or paralysis of the lower legs due to the growth of the tumor into the spinal canal. However, warning signs are so vague that most parents are unaware of the symptoms, allowing time for the tumor to spread throughout other parts of the body before it is diagnosed.

This was the case with Tori. Jack and Jessica were unaware that a nine-inch tumor was lurking in their baby’s belly until they rushed Tori to the hospital when she fell over one day and broke her leg. The tumor had spread from her abdomen into the bones of her arms and legs. Time was running out for Tori when she was accepted into St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., under the care of Dr. Steve Skapek.

Tori underwent her first chemotherapy treatment on Monday, June 5, 2006. Beabe said fter her very first treatment, Tori’s hair fell out.

“She has the most beautiful strawberry blonde hair. After her first chemo treatment, it all fell out. Me and her mother cried for days to see her like that. She’s only a baby. This burden is too much for her to bear,” said Beabe Campbell, Tori’s grandmother.

“Tori is facing approximately one year of intense medical treatment, which will include chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants,” said Mary Keathley, Tori’s social worker and member of the Solid Tumor Team at St. Jude. After the chemotherapy, Tori will have surgery to remove the tumor, then undergo bone marrow transplants in an attempt to save her life. Doctors said she will then have annual checkups until she is 18 years old.

“It’s already so awful for Tori. I think people don’t really understand what chemo does to grown adults, much less to one-year-old babies. Tori has to have chemo every 18 days. The treatments take so much out of her that she spends those 18 days fighting off infection, keeping down the smallest amount of food and water, and throwing up stomach acid that has left blisters in her throat. Then she has to turn around and do it all over again. She just cries and cries and it breaks your heart,” Beabe said.

Tori and her parents now live in the Target House at St. Jude. The grandparents have temporary custody of Tori’s sister, Chloe, so that she will be able to start kindergarten in Picayune this coming school year. Beabe said Chloe has seen her little sister twice since Tori became sick because the family cannot afford the gas and hotel costs for more than one trip a month out-of-state.

“It currently costs our family at least $1,200 a month to pay bills, buy food, pay car notes and insurance, buy gas, pay telephone bills and electricity bills, and provide for other expenses. I’m disabled and both Jack and Jessica can’t work because taking care of Tori is their top priority now. She’s a full-time job and they need to be able to be with her. But we just don’t know what to do. I’ve written to Oprah, Extreme Home Makeover, and tons of other shows and celebrities, asking if they could help Tori in any way. All I ever get back from them is the standard reply everyone gets back,” Beabe said.

But what really worries the family is what they will be able to bring Tori home to when she is discharged from St. Jude in December 2006 to take cancer treatments at a local facility. As a cancer patient, Tori’s immune system is unable to fight off infections. St. Jude doctors tell the family that Tori must be brought home to the most sterile, safest environment possible because an infection of any type could threaten her life.

“Some members of our family donated an acre of land to us in Long Beach. But we don’t have the money to build a house right now and we have to have a safe home for Tori as soon as possible. Since relocating to Picayune, the community has just opened their arms and hearts to our family and now my family would really like to build our new home right here. We want a chance to give back to the community that has so graciously taken care of us in our time of need,” said Tori’s mother.

Beabe and the Picayune Veterans of Foreign Wars has planned a benefit for Tori October 14, 2006 at 12 noon at the VFW headquarters in Picayune. The family needs volunteers to donate food for food plates that will be sold, gift cards, cakes, raffle prizes, and crafts to be used during the benefit. They are also asking live bands to perform at the benefit.

They also need volunteers for a car wash that will be held at a later date. The family is also looking for companies that will be able to donate banners and signs for the benefit. Any vendors wishing to participate in the event will not be charged a booth fee and all vendors are invited to participate, however the family asks that a portion of vendor profits be donated to Tori and her family. Anyone who is interested in donating their time, food, or talent to the benefit may contact the VFW.

Anyone wishing to make a cash donation may do so at Hancock Bank under the name of Tori Anne Riley Hopkins Family Benefit Fund under the employee Intranet Benefits account. For information on Tori, visit her website at www.caringbridge.org/visit/torihopkins.