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Although early June in Memphis can be blazing hot, golfers, volunteers and spectators turn out in droves for the FedEx St. Jude Classic, now in its 57th year. One of the highlights of the tournament is the Pro-Am, when amateurs and pros come together to play. It’s also when patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital head to the course to participate as honorary caddies in the Little Loopers program.
Since 2007, Debbie and her husband, Eric, a FedEx pilot, have led the volunteer efforts for the Little Loopers. From the start, the experience was more about St. Jude for Debbie and Eric than about golf. The volunteers for the Little Loopers ferry patients across the golf course and line them up with the Pro-Am players.
“It was something rewarding and interesting to do,” said Debbie. She and Eric looked forward to interacting with St. Jude patients and their families each June. “A lot of the St. Jude families who come out have been doing so for years, so it was always nice to chat and see how the kids were doing.”
But in February 2013, St. Jude became a larger part of their lives, when their daughter, Allie, was found to suffer from a brain tumor called an anaplastic ependymoma.
Several months earlier, Allie, a competitive dancer on her school’s dance team, came home from school worried. She was having episodes where she would blank out for a few moments, but then suddenly snap back to being herself. Given the hours of dance practice Allie was putting in for an upcoming competition, Debbie assumed she was dehydrated. She encouraged Allie to drink more water and take it easy.
“We didn’t think it was anything serious,” Debbie said. For several weeks, Allie seemed fine. But shortly after the New Year, during a school pep rally, Allie forgot the routine the team was performing — a routine she had done many times before. Soon, a brain scan revealed Allie was having seizure activity. A week later, an MRI revealed a mass on Allie’s front right temporal lobe.
“We were devastated,” Debbie said. Allie underwent surgery at a local children’s hospital. When a biopsy revealed the tumor was malignant, Debbie and Eric turned to St. Jude for Allie’s treatment and care. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since it opened 52 years ago.
At St. Jude, Allie underwent 33 rounds of radiation therapy. “She remained so strong during treatment,” said Debbie. “St. Jude means everything to us now. It’s part of our family. I can’t imagine not having St. Jude in our lives for this.”
Allie finished treatment shortly before the 2013 golf tournament. She was always too young to volunteer with her parents at the Little Loopers event, but last year she could participate — as a St. Jude honorary caddie.
“Allie is my hero,” Debbie said. “Despite everything she’s been through in the last year, she has such faith.”
Allie’s most recent set of scans showed no new evidence of returning disease. She’s back to competing on her high school dance team and is doing well in school. Debbie and Eric are gearing up for another Little Loopers experience. And Allie will be right alongside them, once again walking across the course as an honorary caddie for St. Jude.