Fighting for Fugate

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SMU alumna Jennifer Fugate was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. (Courtesy of Jennifer Fugate)

 

Starting a new career, renting an apartment, buying a new car and even finding love is what many college students expect their futures hold for them when they graduate. Oct. 31 is also a night that most college students see as a night of partying.

It’s what SMU aluma Jennifer Fugate expected when she start her last semester at SMU in fall 2013.

For Fugate, Oct. 31, 2013, was the day when her entire life was flipped upside down. She was admitted into Baylor Hospital at Plano after suffering from severe pain in her right hip for about three months.

“It was literally the worst timing ever,” Fugate said. “A month before college ended.”

An electrical engineering major, she had four job offers, including two from John Deere and General Motors, which she was deciding on. She had to turn all four down.

Fugate’s right hip was four times bigger than her left hip and after a high contrast MRI, doctors found a tumor. The tumor was so large that it broke her hip in half. Her team of 10 doctors at Baylor couldn’t pinpoint the specific type of cancer and sent her lab results to Harvard.

“At one point, no one could figure it out,” Fugate said. “My insurance company wanted to kick me out of the hospital because the doctors couldn’t do anything.”

She was on pain medication every two hours.

“This period was such haze,” Fugate said. “I couldn’t walk at all. I had to have help to the bathroom, it was embarrassing. I used to be so independent.”

Fugate’s mom had to speak to several doctors before the third doctor gave Fugate tests that allowed her to stay in the hospital.

“You can’t just lay in the hospital,” Fugate said. “It was crazy, I can’t go home when I can’t function.”

After Harvard tried three times to narrow her diagnose down, she was diagnosed with an Ewing like Sarcoma. Her specific type of cancer is only found in .6 percent of the population.

Fugate was at Baylor from Halloween to mid November. She lost almost 30 pounds in that period. She had about 200 visitors come through her room.

“When you get sick like that, your true friends step up,” Fugate said. “Goodies, care packages, so many letters. It’s been crazy I don’t know how to thank them. Words don’t do the job.”

The day the letter from Harvard came in the mail, Fugate was leaving to go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a hospital that is considered “the number one center for Sarcoma,” for an appointment.

After being put on Morphine, Fentinol and Haldol, Fugate overdosed on painkillers.

She was put on chemotherapy and after 24 hours it helped.

“I haven’t had a pain killer since then,” Fugate said.

Fugate, originally from Atoka, Okla., and family of nine spent crowded into one hotel room for their Thanksgiving dinner in Houston.

“The hardest part is I am a 22 college graduate and instead having fun skating or going uptown, I am in a hospital on Saturday night,”  Fugate said. “The fact that I am young and I’m not doing stuff. Now I’m in a wheel chair and it sucks.”

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Fugate was prescribed 14 21-day cycles of chemotherapy. Although she has been discharged from Anderson, she has to be within an hour of the hospital in case of emergency.

Her doctor gave her special permission to attend her graduation. Fugate sat in a wheel chair in the front row on left corner.

“I still wore my red heels I’ve been planning to wearing since day one,” Fugate said. “People said I was crazy since I could barely walk.”

Two people had to guide her to the stage and up the stairs. She walked across the stage by herself.

“When I shook President [R. Gerald] Turner’s hand, I saw my bracelet on his arm, Fugate said. “He said ‘Everyone is fighting for Fugate’ and I turned and looked around I saw everyone wearing my bracelet and I started crying.”

“He walked the rest of the way with me,” she said. “I was so tired.”

“Fighting for Fugate” is the text that’s on the $5 pink and black rubber bracelets that the Bobby Lyle School of Engineering has been selling in order to support the cost of treatment. The bracelets also have Fugate’s favorite scripture, Joshua 1:9 on them. T-shirts are also being sold.

Along with the bracelets and t-shirts, her high school friends had a spaghetti dinner in her honor after a basketball game where she used to play, a 5k run has been held and more recently SMU alums and students held “Two-Stepping for Fugate” at White Saloon in Dallas.

Fugate also has a website where friends, family and even strangers have donated a total of $12,710. There is a goal of $50,000.

Two hundred and seventy nine people came to the country-dancing event on Jan. 23 and $2,079 was raised between raffle tickets, bracelets and donations.

“I couldn’t make it and it broke my heart,” Fugate said. “280 people showed and they all talked about how I introduced them to country dancing.”

The event, planned by several of Fugate’s friends featured one of her favorite activities.

“Jennifer has a deep love for country dancing, and it is a love that she has spread to all of us,” SMU aluma Brittany Eva said. “She is the one that taught us all how to dance our freshman year, then we would teach the next set of people, and they would teach the next, and so on.”

First year electrical engineering student Arianna Santiago met Fugate when Fugate was giving her the tour that convinced her to come to SMU.

“Before she became ill, she had invited me to join her and her friends when they went out Two-Stepping Thursday nights,” Santiago said. “I never got the chance to go with her, so I jumped at the chance to support her by doing something she loved.

Fugate, who was very active before the diagnosis, spends most of her days reading books in a home that sits on the beach because she doesn’t have the strength to do the activities she used to do such as dirt biking, riding motorcycles and water sports.

“I want to be surfing because I am on a beach, but I can’t,” Fugate said.

She will undergo surgery to remove the tumor and fix her hip, as well as radiation and the chemotherapy. Fugate’s treatment will continue to September 2014 and she plans on looking for jobs after that.

“I think I’ve decided defense industry,” Fugate said. “I’ll try Lockheed Martin. I want to move back to Dallas. We’ll see how it goes though.”

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