Year of adversity provides Vilonia family lessons of faith, family

By Donna Stephens Originally Published December 30, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 28, 2012 at 10:08 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Patti, left, and Jeremy Carson, right, are shown with their children, Johnathan, standing, and Kelsey. Patti Carson has a rare form of cancer that caused tumors throughout her body, including two in her brain. She received her last chemotherapy treatment on Christmas Eve. During Patti’s battle with the disease, the Carsons said, they’ve received support from various facets of their community, displayed by people wearing Team Carson shirts.

— Patti Carson’s Christmas present didn’t come in a box.

On Christmas Eve, she was to complete chemotherapy treatments she had endured since June.

“That’s a really good Christmas present right there,” the Vilonia woman said.

CT scans had shown that the treatments were working. She has a PET scan scheduled for Wednesday, and if it comes back clear, she’ll be declared in remission.

“If you’re going to get cancer, I got the right kind,” she said. “It’s very curable, and if you can get past the first year in remission, the chance of it coming back is very unlikely.

“I’ve been blessed in all of it.”

It’s a remarkable attitude, but even more so considering the cancer diagnosis was not her worst health scare of 2012.

“What can you give somebody who wants to be well?” her husband, Jeremy, said recently. “I’ve got her gifts, but none of it even comes close to the news that we’re going to be home free.”

After the stresses of 2012, the couple deserve a peaceful 2013.

Jeremy and Patti met in the sixth grade at Junction City and started dating in high school. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Central Arkansas, the couple, married in 2003, seemed well on their way to a normal, uneventful future.

But everything changed in 2012.

The highlight of the year came early. Their daughter, Kelsey Drew, was born Jan. 25, joining older brother Jonathan, who was born in 2008.

On April 4, Jeremy, the girls basketball and assistant baseball coach at Conway Christian High School, came home from a baseball tournament pumped up after a dramatic Eagles win. But Patti, who had returned to work as a financial-aid counselor at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, was unusually tired.

“I knew something wasn’t right, but I was not sure what it was,” he remembered. “She woke up in the middle of the night with the worst headache she’d ever had. She woke me up, and it quickly went south. She went unconscious very quickly after that.”

With both children having awakened, Jeremy called an ambulance at 3 a.m.

“Our neighbors saw the ambulance lights and came over, and I handed my kids off to them to watch,” Jeremy said. “They took her to Conway Regional [Medical Center], where we found out she had a massive brain hemorrhage.”

By 5 a.m., Patti was sent by ambulance to St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center in Little Rock, where she was stabilized. The neurosurgeon told Jeremy he wanted to watch the situation for a few days.

Three days later, on Easter, Patti woke up.

“We were able to have a conversation; she was bossing me around, telling me what clothes Kelsey needed to wear,” Jeremy remembered. “I was thinking, ‘Great; she’s turned the corner.’”

He returned home to Vilonia that afternoon to have an Easter-egg hunt with his 3-year-old son, leaving his mother-in-law with Patti. But after he left, things quickly turned deadly serious. By the time he returned to the hospital, his wife had gone into respiratory distress.

“By the time I got back, she had coded, and they were taking lifesaving measures,” he said. “They performed an emergency craniectomy to remove a fairly big part of her skull to allow the brain to swell.”

Three weeks after surgery, Patti had recovered enough to move to a rehabilitation facility in Little Rock. After nearly three weeks there, she was able to walk and was about to be released, but three days before her discharge, she started having symptoms of a miscarriage. Nurses sent her to Baptist Medical Center in North Little Rock, where a doctor performed an emergency D&C. He told Jeremy his wife had been pregnant.

“I said, ‘There’s absolutely no way,’” he recalled. “But she’d lost so much blood, she had to have a blood transfusion.”

After being released, Patti started taking iron pills, but she was unable to tolerate them. Finally, Jeremy contacted her OB/GYN, Dr. Jeremy Ward, who ran a complete battery of blood work. The results worried him.

“He was the first one to suspect she had a form of cancer,” Jeremy said.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, choriocarcinoma is a quick-growing form of cancer that occurs in a woman’s uterus.

“It’s very, very rare,” Jeremy said. “It affects mostly women who have molar pregnancies, where the egg isn’t fertilized but implants into the uterus, but it can follow a live birth. Part of the placenta implanted and grew, and it can turn cancerous quickly. It’s very aggressive.”

The radiologist who performed the CT scan told the couple he had never seen anything like what Patti’s results showed. She had two tumors in her brain (one of which had bled; hence, the hemorrhage in April), “innumerable” tumors in her lungs and others in her kidney, spleen and ovaries.

“Pretty much anywhere you can think of, she had tumors,” Jeremy said. “Think of how fast a baby grows, and that’s how fast this cancer grows.”

The June diagnosis showed she had Stage 4 cancer. Dr. Lawrence Bandy, a gynecological oncologist in Little Rock, told the couple she was in the late stages and needed to start treatment immediately. The chemo treatments began June 5.

“If someone had told me ahead of time what we would go through this year, I would have panicked because there is no way any one family can have the strength to endure this,” Jeremy said. “I found out real quick that we weren’t in this fight alone, and that our extended family, including the Conway Christian community, the UACCM community, Vilonia United Methodist Church, the Faulkner County church community and the coaching community would be with us every step of the way. We don’t even know who all to thank for the prayers, donations and help during this year.

“We are forever grateful for our ‘extended family.’ Our story is as much about their generosity and love as it is about Patti’s fight and miraculous healing.”

Patti agreed.

“Cancer really is something that you can’t do alone,” she said. “You have to have that community and family support in order to get through it.”

Jeremy said Patti experienced a tremendous amount of muscle loss while down with the brain hemorrhage and was unable to do much rehab afterward because of the cancer treatments. At one point, she weighed 95 pounds.

But her husband said she is getting stronger, has put on some weight and is able — finally — to pick up the baby again. Patti lost a good portion of her skull —

permanently — and the chemo took her hair. Once she recovers from the chemo, she will have a prosthesis to replace the missing part of her skull.

“She thought losing her hair was going to bother her,” Jeremy said. “I thought it would bother me more than it did, but it doesn’t. I was going to shave my head, too, but she wouldn’t let me. She said she didn’t want to look at my ugly head. She’s been able to maintain her humor through this process. Little kids look at her and wonder what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter.”

Besides weakness and fatigue, Patti’s only remaining disability is some loss of peripheral vision, which may or may not be permanent, Jeremy said.

“She continues to recover,” he said. “She’s a really strong person.”

So is he.

Just two weeks prior to Patti’s hemorrhage, Jeremy’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Through all of it, Jeremy has had the best attitude and outlook and has been an incredible example to the girls and the school in that he had total trust and faith in the Lord that he was going to take care of her,” said Kim Powell, Jeremy’s assistant basketball coach and the women’s athletic director at Conway Christian. “He never was bitter. He had to put his trust in the Lord and his faith that no matter what, he had that peace that it was going to be OK either way.

“The girls also saw how he would pray, and his attitude. I believe everyone’s faith increased because of his.”

The love and support that have surrounded the family throughout the ordeal have made a big difference.

Conway Christian allowed Jeremy to take as much time as he needed to care for his wife. About 80 people — students, parents, faculty members — held a prayer vigil for Patti at the school’s gym while she was in surgery on Easter. Others joined Jeremy and his family at the hospital.

“The support just grew and grew and grew,” he said. “This is their story as much as anything. It just shows the kind of generosity and selflessness of so many people.”

Jeremy is in his third year at Conway Christian after coaching and working in academic and athletic advising at UCA and Nicholls (La.) State.

“I think God placed us here for this time,” he said. “Patti and I are strong in our faith, and we realize things happen. It’s not why; it’s what you do with it. We’re just going to be faithful with it. It’s a way for us to witness out there and show that healing happens, and there’s a lot of good in this world, a lot of good people. We have been the recipients, and it’s really humbling.

“The events of this year have really put things in perspective for me. Family has become even more important than it was. Also, I feel the only way to repay the generosity shown to my family is to somehow pay it forward to someone else in need. I have also learned to take things one day at a time and live that day to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps more than anyone, the Carsons are eagerly anticipating 2013.

“It’s been a long year,” Jeremy said. “I will be glad to see the calendar change.”

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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