Running For A Reason
Jackie LeCompte’s Story
By Lisa Hanchey
Jackie LeCompte entered her first marathon at age 53. Despite heavy rain, near-freezing temperatures and steep hills, she persevered through the long, 26.2-mile trek through Memphis. What kept her going? Her daughter’s persistent cheers at every turn during the challenging race.
You see, Jackie’s daughter, Danielle, is no ordinary 16-year-old. At the tender age of 8, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer affecting her brain stem. For the past 8 years, Danielle has been battling this disease – and winning. And, it was Danielle’s courage that motivated Jackie to enter the grueling St. Jude’s Marathon this past December. “I thought, if she can survive this, after all she’s been through, I can do a marathon,” Jackie recalls.
Danielle had always been a happy, healthy child. So, when she started vomiting inexplicably at age 8 years old, her concerned teachers called Jackie. After a few weeks of the intermittent bouts, Danielle’s parents brought her to New Iberia pediatrician (and longtime family friend) Dr. Martin de Gravelles. At first, doctors told the LeComptes that Danielle had post-nasal drip. But, after Danielle’s symptoms failed to subside, Dr. de Gravelles referred her to a specialist in New Orleans. The specialist recommended an MRI.
The family decided to do the MRI in Lafayette. That evening, Dr. de Gravelles called Jackie from a hunting lodge, and asked the LeComptes to come to his office the next day – without Danielle. Then, he called again and said that he was leaving the lodge immediately, asking them to meet him at his office. “He was crying when we got there,” Jackie recalls.
The MRI revealed a tumor in Danielle’s brain stem. Dr. de Gravelles referred the LeComptes to Tulane Medical Center. After seeing specialists at Tulane, Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the family still had no hope. Then, Jackie’s cousin suggested St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
A Baton Rouge physician at a feeder hospital got Danielle into St. Jude’s. The family arrived at the Memphis hospital on a Wednesday. Then, Danieille’s parents were faced with a dilemma – having to decide whether to have Danielle undergo a potentially fatal biopsy or live without a definitive diagnosis – by that Friday
After crying and praying all night, Danielle’s parents decided to proceed with the biopsy. But, they did not tell Danielle about the risks of the procedure. As Danielle was wheeled away for the biopsy, she blew kisses to her parents. They knew that they might never see her alive again.
Danielle survived the risky procedure, but was left with a three-inch scar on the back of her head. After 36 radiation treatments, she had some bald patches. But, Danielle was not about to let that affect her young life. “She told me, ‘I want to dye my hair fuchsia pink,’” Jackie says. Afterwards, no one ever noticed her bald spots.
For six long months, the LeComptes lived in Memphis while Danielle underwent treatment at St. Jude. Jackie’s only comfort during this stressful process was food. The 5-foot-2-inch beauty ballooned to 189 pounds. “All the kids there worried more about their parents than themselves,” Jackie explains. “So, the moms eat and get fat.”
During the next four years, the family returned to Memphis every three months for Danielle’s follow up appointments. They eventually dwindled to every six months. Danielle’s courageous attitude towards her treatment process inspired Jackie to do something to show her support. She decided to run the St. Jude’s Marathon.
Held every December, the St. Jude’s Marathon draws over 30,000 runners annually. Although Jackie had never run more than a mile, she was determined to train for the entire 26.2-mile course. At age 53, Jackie started training for the race of her life.
She began by attending local marathons and watching the runners for inspiration. “I saw people of every age and size running these races,” she recalls. “I knew I could do it.”
When she first told Danielle and Danielle’s friend, fellow St. Jude patient Markell Gregoire, about her decision, they laughed. “They said, ‘You’re too old,’” Jackie remembers. “I thought, ‘If these kids can do it, after all they’ve been through, then I can do it’.”
But, Jackie showed them all. For a year, she ran almost daily, averaging one- to three-spurts mile during the week and 13 miles on weekends. During this process, she had two major surgeries – thyroid removal and hand surgery resulting from a bacterial infection. She also watched Danielle thrive while Markell declined. After a six-year battle with cancer, Markell died February 13, 2016 at age 16. Danielle was devastated. “She was very close to him,” Jackie says sadly.
The Big Race
In December, 2016, Danielle’s Cajun Krew, comprised of 80 New Iberia women, boarded a bus for Memphis chartered by Danielle’s biggest financial supporter – Acadiana Hope for a Cure. Over the last 10 years, this organization, along with Lazy Lounge’s benefit and Huey & Possum’s golf tournament, have raised $100,000 to over $150,000 annually for St. Jude.
Aboard the Memphis-bound bus were first-time marathoners Jackie and daughter, Kristen. Among the New Iberia group, the LeCompte women were the only ones who ran the entire 26.2 mile route. The mother-daughter duo had t-shirts made, one saying “I run for my sister,” and the other “I run for my daughter.”
Along the route, Jackie and Kristen’s supporters met them every five miles, even hiring an Uber to follow them along the way. As Jackie was nearing the end of the race, Danielle and several Krew members ran with her, cheering all the way. When she finally cleared the finish line, “screaming in pain,” Jackie collapsed. “I couldn’t feel my legs,” she explains. A New Iberia fireman carried Jackie to a tent to administer medical aid. Once she was able to stand on her own, Jackie walked down to take photos with her team. As Danielle embraced Jackie for a photograph, both were crying.
After Jackie arrived at the hotel, she was transported to her room in a wheel chair. “Danielle kept yelling to the staff, “‘She needs peanut butter!’ But they didn’t have any,” Jackie recalls vividly. Once the family got settled, the hotel manager personally delivered peanut butter to the room.
Racing for a Reason
Since Danielle’s diagnosis, the New Iberia community rallied, raising more than $100,000 for St. Jude’s each year. With the combined efforts of major supporters Acadiana Hope for a Cure, Lazy Lounge and Huey and Possum’s memorial golf tournament, the small town has kept pace with major cities throughout the country. “Between these three organizations, we have qualified for the top 10 in donations in the country,” Jackie says proudly.
Over the past eight years following treatment, Danielle’s tumor has been contained. She now has a boyfriend and is living as a normal teenager. “She’s a miracle,” Jackie relays.
Jackie has also experienced a transformation. She’s whittled down to 123 pounds, and is glowing, tanned and fit. She still runs five to six miles at time during the week, and 13 miles on weekends.
Seeing St. Jude’s work first-hand over the past 10 years has inspired Jackie to continue her efforts to race for a cure. “As long as I am physically able, I will do the race again,” she says confidently. “Absolutely.”
To catch up with Danielle, read her Bright From The Start feature on page 38.