Sometimes in life there comes a moment when all the petty joys and irritations of everyday life fall away, and a person’s perceptions narrow to an urgent pinpoint of focus.
It’s a moment when all the noise of a modern life is tuned out, and a person remembers how precious their loved ones are to them.
Curt Check and Jamie Oppriecht had one of those moments when their three-year-old daughter Bristol was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), also called acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
ALL is a cancer that starts from the early version of white blood cells called lymphocytes in the bone marrow. The term ‘acute’ means that the leukemia can progress quickly, and if not treated, would probably be fatal within a few months.
At the time, Jamie and Curt found out about Bristol’s condition, Jamie had just given birth a month before to their youngest child, daughter Brindle. They also had two sons, Trey, 7 and Wrangler, 5 who were just entering into Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten respectively.
“Bristol is a tomboy in a pink dress,” recounted Suzy Oppriecht, Bristol’s grandmother. “If her brothers can do it, so can she.”
It was very noticeable when this vibrant, active little girl began to change her habits. She became quieter, and would often choose to stay inside, a marked departure from her usual lively approach to life.
“Bris is a very active child,” Jamie said. “She helps us do chores every day, plays with her brothers every day, all day, and learned to ride a bike at the age of two.
“So, it was very noticeable last September when things changed,” Jamie said. “She would still try to get out there, but she tired very quickly.”
Bristol began to run a fever, and this went on for two to three weeks before her mother became very concerned and insisted on some tests.
Things evolved very quickly from there, once blood tests revealed that the little girl’s blood platelet count had dropped to four (normal being 12-13), and she was quickly transferred to Gundersen Health Care in La Crosse where the pediatric oncology team immediately began an aggressive course of treatment involving chemotherapy, bone marrow infusions and steroids.
“I had a gut feeling that something was really wrong with her, and an intuition that it might be cancer,” Jamie recalled.
“When the doctors confirmed it, I was shocked, stunned and scared for about the first three days.
“After that, when she began to respond to the treatments, we just resolved to move forward with a mindset that nothing bad was going to happen to her,” Jamie said. “We’re a family of positive thinkers.”
In the face of this whirlwind, the extended family pulled together to allow Jamie and Curt to be at the hospital with Bristol.
The family cared for the new baby and made sure the boys got to school and received the emotional support they needed to cope with their fears and concern for their sister.
“As a teacher at the school, I saw what the family was going through. The two older boys, Trey and Wrangler, they’re basically happy-go-lucky little guys, so they did pretty well with it all,” commented Ann Wallin, a recently retired Seneca school teacher. “Their grandmother Suzy Oppriecht really stepped up to the plate, took care of the new baby, and made sure the boys got to school and had what they needed.”
“The boys have been very, very good through all of this, and have been loving and supportive to their sister,” their grandmother Suzy said. “They have a little nickname for Bristol – they call her ‘Honey Check’.”
And when you’re a farmer, you can’t just stop farming either – the cattle have to be cared for, which kept Curt and the extended family plenty busy as well.
The Checks had more than two hundred head of cattle at the time, and were also working to harvest their feed crops.
Curt and Jamie are in the business of raising rodeo bulls on their rural property near Seneca.
Curt, originally from Eastman, grew up riding bulls and established a well-deserved reputation for his bull-riding prowess over the course of 24 years, including 17 years as a professional.
“When Bris was in the hospital, Curt’s rodeo friends would come up to see her,” remembered Bristol’s grandmother. “These tough guys would come walking, or limping in as the case might be, and they all brought her a stuffed animal as big as she was. They’re really a pretty tender-hearted bunch.”
Doing very well
In a situation like this, while the sorrows may be obvious, positive thinkers like Curt and Jamie prefer to focus on the joy.
“For me there is joy in seeing how well Bris handles the treatments,” said Jamie. “She isn’t sick after she has chemotherapy, and her hair is coming back to the point she can put it in a ponytail again.”
The little girl has more energy, and is back outside with her family, participating in farm life and being with the animals she loves.
“Right now, she’s in a pink dress, tan, dusty – she’s back to being herself,” Jamie explained. “We pray for all the kids, for their health, safety and happiness. Every day, we thank God that she’s made it this far, and is doing so well.”
A benefit for the family
One of the extra challenges people in rural areas experience when there is a health emergency in their family is all the extra driving, meals out, and at times lodging involved in traveling long distances to be with your loved ones when they’re in the hospital.
Seneca is a strong, tightly knit, caring community and when they see one of their own having a hard time, they roll up their sleeves and come together to help.
There will be a benefit held for the Check-Oppriecht family on Sunday, July 24, at the Seneca Town Hall. Food will be served starting at 11 a.m., and there will be a raffle at 1 p.m.
“Even if you have health insurance, when you have a terrible medical difficulty like they are going through, there’s all kinds of extra expenses involved with traveling back and forth to the hospital, eating out, even lodging at times,” Ann Wallin, one of the benefit organizers said.
“With Jamie being a young mother of four, and the couple being young farmers, they were already putting in long, hard days before this all started happening.” Wallin said. “We’d really like to see the community come out and support this young family.”
Rachael George was recruited by Ann Wallin to help organize the benefit.
“The lunch will be pulled pork sandwiches, and there will be a free will donation,” George said. “For the raffle there will be raffle baskets, a 50/50 raffle, and pull-tabs. There will also be a dice game for both kids and adults. Best of all will be the pie auction.
“There are some really talented pie-makers in our community – at past pie raffles, I’ve seen some of those pies go for as much as $100,” said George. “Our goal is to get the community to come together, and hopefully, to make the Check’s life a little easier.”
Jamie and Curt were raised in strong, self-reliant families.
“I’m not one to ask for help,” said Jamie, “If a fence needs to be repaired, I don’t ask someone else to do it, I just go out and fix it.”
But Jamie was quick to express gratitude for the kindness and concern of people in her community.
“I told Bris it’s a party for her because she has to go to so many doctor’s appointments. She’s pretty excited,” Jamie said.