Family finds solace amid sorrow
Mobility — that is the one thing Kristie Tallmon, 42, misses most about being healthy. On Feb. 17, years of different diagnoses came to a head and became clear when a doctor told Kristie she had terminal brain cancer.
Over the past few years, Kristie suffered from symptoms she and her family once believed were multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and psoriatic arthritis, before finally finding out her symptoms all stemmed from one cause: cancerous lesions on her brain.
In 2009, she had a melanoma removed from her back, but as Kristie's mother Vangie Huntington explains, lymph node mapping was not as precise as it is now.
What spurred Kristie's most recent — and revealing — trip to the doctor, was a series of out-of-character emotional outbursts, dizzy spells, tingling sensations in her face, difficulty swallowing, changes in her voice and eventually, some very close calls while driving because of illness-related impairment.
"It scared the hell out of me," she says. "That's when I asked (my mom) to drive me in."
"I sound like I have laryngitis," Kristie says. "I didn't feel like I was steady. Everything that started popping up my daughter and I researched and we thought it was MS."
The small amount of certainty this self-diagnosis provided made the truth even more surprising.
"Absolute shock," Vangie says, describing their initial reactions to the news.
"They were very gentle about it," she adds. "But it's really hard when somebody sits you down and says, 'You have terminal brain cancer. You need to go to the hospital, the emergency room right now. Do not go home and pack a bag. Go right there, because one of the lesions is on your brain stem and you could quit breathing.'"
The lesion on Kristie's brain stem is one of four in her brain.It is the largest, at 2.6 centimeters and because of its location in the Pons region, it is inoperable.
Kristie is the mother of two, a 23-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, who lives with her and her mother in her mother's house.
Kristie has lived in the Sandy area off and on for the past 10 years. Her family has been here since 1990.
Kristie's son, Mason, has taken the idea of his mother's death with mixed batches of sadness and confusion.
"He wasn't quite sure what it meant, and I explained it to him," she said with a laugh, and then begins to cry.
This isn't her way of putting on a brave face. The Pons region, where her most problematic lesion is, controls her automatic reflexes and emotions.
"Sometimes I laugh and cry at the same time, but it's out of context," she explains. "Like, I'll be watching a cartoon and then cry about it."
"He doesn't understand a whole lot," she says. "He knows mommy is sick and he knows that sometimes you have to get sicker before you get better. He doesn't understand her dying. He asks if she's going to go be with grandpa, and I say 'Yeah,' and we talk a little bit about it."
At the moment, Kristie is seeing some improvement in her quality of life — a few of her symptoms have eased with the radiation treatment. This only confuses Mason more. It gives him hope that she might be OK.
"He will tell me when I take him to school and I'm standing in line waiting for the gate to open: 'I'm going to go stand in line, Grandma. You go home and take care of Mommy,'" Vangie says. "Or he'll come in (the living room) and say, 'I'm going to go check on Mommy,' because she'll be in bed and we'll be out here and he'll go check on her three or four times before he goes to bed."
This devotion from her son seems to both be a source of solace and also sorrow, as she worries about leaving him.
Also a point of concern lately has been finances.
In an effort to defer costs of treatment and prepare for the unfortunately thinkable, the family has been going through Kristie's belongings to decide which she would like to pass on to others and which they can sell to pay hospital bills. They are in the process of selling her car.
"She has maybe two hours each day total that she can sit here and start going through stuff," Vangie explains. "That's all stuff from her house. She lived down at the bottom of my property here, and we went in, gathered everything up and she goes through what she can, how she feels. Not at all in one stretch, and then she'll have to go lie down. It's hard to see, it's hard to concentrate and she gets exhausted so fast."
Keeping things normal
Before her diagnosis, Kristie worked as a logistics analyst.
"(She was) the best multitasker I ever knew," Vangie says.
"Yeah, can't do that anymore," Kristie adds.
In the beginning she worked from home a few days before her condition made that practically impossible.
They don't have a definite number yet of how much it will cost for the treatment in the end, but Vangie says they are just awaiting the "sticker shock."
Another resource they have to allow people to donate to help pay her medical fees is a GoFundMe page. Right now, people have donated $3,160 towards their $10,000 goal — $10,000 is nothing compared to what they are anticipating if their insurance doesn't cover the forms of medication and treatment the doctors prescribe.
Some of Kristie's friends have sent money to her by mail in order to cut out the GoFundMe middleman, which does take a certain percentage of donations.
Financial stress aside, "We're trying to keep life as normal as possible," Vangie says. "Everything we have is going to go towards giving her a quality of life and prolonging that quality of life, because we know it's not a cure. It's giving her the best time that she has."