Finding a place for hope

Ashland community members open their hearts when a family’s world falls apart.
Sunday, February 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In the midst of excited chatter, warm embraces and aggressive bidding, Glen Sapp stands front and center at the Ashland Optimist Complex to orchestrate a live auction held to benefit an area family that has experienced hardship and tragedy.

Across the room, John Humpf moves from person to person to thank the hundreds who came to support his family. He and his wife, Crystal, were set to leave for California on Saturday. There, Crystal’s rare form of cancer can be treated by one of a handful of doctors in the United States who are qualified to treat the disease.

Crystal, 50, is a registered nurse at Boone Hospital Center. She and John raised two twin boys, Alex and Max. On Dec. 16, Crystal was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects her brain. Local doctors said they could provide no help except radiation treatments.

Crystal was told she had two years to live.

Twenty-nine days later, heartbreak struck again. Police showed up on her doorstep at 4 a.m. with the news that Alex, a varsity soccer player and graduating senior, had died in a car wreck. He was 17.

“Everything you see, you get sentimental. The dog sits by the window because Alex, who did work-study, didn’t get home until 12:30. The dog just sits there,” John said. “You miss little things like going to the store and buying the same foods he used to like, and now you don’t buy those because he ate them. You look at pictures, and it’s like someone’s been cut out.”

John describes life the past few weeks as a terrible dream.

“I told my wife, ‘Life’s not fair, cancer is never fair,’” he said. “So we went through all those range of emotions. You felt like you were somewhere else.”

Surgery provides hope

Crystal’s cancer is in the form of a malignant tumor that often forms in the salivary glands of the head and neck. This type of cancer can also develop in the trachea, breast, skin or vulva. Early signs and symptoms can include painless lesions of the face and mouth, but an advanced form can create pain and/or nerve paralysis.

The only pain Crystal experienced developed two years ago from what she thought was a chronic sinus infection. She received periodic surgeries to clear out the sinus passages, but the tumor was found during a routine surgery in December.

Doctors could not indicate how long it had been there — only that it had metastasized to her brain.

Crystal, who is now experiencing mild pressure in her face, requires two surgeries during the next few months to remove the tumor. However, the cost of the procedures could exceed what the insurance will pay by more than $32,000. The surgeries will take place at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“Now, we’re trying to get over that and get healed before we go to Los Angeles. I’m hoping Alex will put in a good word for her,” John said.

John and Max went to Los Angeles with Crystal for support. Her surgery, scheduled for Wednesday, will be performed by Hrayr Karning Shahinian, director of the Skull Base Institute at Cedars-Sinai.

With 10 years of fellowship training in the area, Shahinian can apply a revolutionary approach to the brain surgery by encompassing ear, nose, and throat surgery and reconstructive surgery to remove the tumor, said Connie Hall, a Boone Hospital registered nurse and family friend.

Of the few physicians who can treat patients with the adenoidal cancer, Crystal and her family chose Shahinian because he is known worldwide and is a personal friend of a family member who is a medical illustrator in New York.

Community lends its support

Since Alex’s death, the family has had difficulty focusing on much else. However, the community was ready to respond to the family’s needs. Some of Crystal’s friends and mothers at Southern Boone County High School wanted to organize an auction to help pay for the surgeries.

“When the insurance company started balking, it just felt like it was anything that we could do as a community — not only as Crystal’s personal friends, but as the whole Ashland community,” said Hall, an Ashland resident. “That is the way this whole community is, and we want to do anything we can to offset some of the expenses.”

Coworkers came to the auction because of their friendships with and respect for Crystal. Friends who have been supported by the Humpf family in their own times of need also attended. Southern Boone students came because of their friendships with Alex and Max. Others came to extend support even if they didn’t know the Humpf family.

Lucy Shaffer, a Boone Hospital registered nurse and friend of Crystal’s for 23 years, helped organize the event.

“She is just one of those people; she starts good from the inside,” Shaffer said. “She is really morally good, a real solid person, a good decision-maker and a good friend, and that’s why I think there has been such a response. She had lots of friendships through her children here in Ashland and then is very well respected in the medical community.”

At the start of the charity event Jan. 30, kettles of 10 types of soup simmered as volunteers set up the silent auction for interested bidders. With more than 300 items for sale, individuals bid on gift certificates to restaurants, golf games, MU basketball tickets, Barbie dolls, baskets of movies, popcorn and wine, Mary Kay manicure sets and Victoria’s Secret perfumes. With about 300 individuals and nearly 100 businesses donating to the Crystal Humpf Fund, the event raised $23,319.63. More contributions came in after the auction.

For three hours, a steady stream of friends and supporters entered through the double doors of the Optimist Club complex. Nearly all bought raffle tickets and participated in the auction or donated what they could.

In addition to prizes, the raffle tickets were coordinated with a Bunny Bingo game. A rabbit was let loose in a bunny pen lined with a grid of 1,152 squares. Any square he left a dropping on could redeem a prize. Three people won.

In addition to the auctions, bingo and raffles, purple rubber bracelets that read “hope” and small crystal-beaded bracelets were for sale. Both sold out quickly.

The beaded bracelets were made by “Crystals for Crystal,” a collaboration of nurses in the Boone Hospital gastroenterology department who spent the weekend making them. Shaffer said the idea coordinates with Crystal’s sense of style. Crystal is known for loving jewelry and wearing neat pieces herself, she said.

Style must run in the family because Shaffer said Crystal’s mother and grandmother wore interesting jewelry. Alex was also known for loving fashion, and his favorite color was pink. Pink rubber bracelets in his honor were available at many Ashland businesses and sold briskly.

As family supporters waited for the auction to start, some continued to bid while others bought dinner.

Heather Johnson and her parents enjoyed chili and pie as they waited. Although Marla and Daniel Johnson do not know the Humpf family, their daughter attended school with Alex and Max.

“I just wanted to help that family,” Heather said. “On Wednesday, I could really tell there was a difference in the people. I could tell something was wrong when I got to school, and it didn’t really impact me until I got home after that day at school when I saw everybody’s faces.”

As the auction commenced, Sapp tried to increase the bidding on all items. With his help, the biggest item of the day was a weeklong winter vacation in Colorado that sold for $3,700. The trip, valued at $7,000, was donated by a doctor who works with Crystal and owns the ski condo.

After the auction, family and friends went to nearby Woody’s Pub for another fund-raiser. The bar donated three kegs of beer, and with the money raised from alcohol sales and other donations, Shaffer estimated total contributions of about $26,000.

“Everybody in Ashland has just been fantastic,” said Crystal’s mother-in-law, Jeanne Humpf. “About the time that you think the world has gone to hell in a handbasket with wars and murders and all you see on TV, then you see all these wonderful people and you find out differently that they got big hearts.”

The turnout the auction generated shocked Crystal.

“It’s very overwhelming how supportive everybody’s been,” she said. “I’m really just trying to stay upbeat, but it’s very hard. Everybody helping has taken a lot of the stress off. Our friends and family have just been phenomenal. They were there the whole time after Alex was killed.”

John said he has been in awe of the support people have offered. Letters from strangers, journals from students and money from friends and churches have been overwhelming, he said.

One church in particular, Living Faith, came by the day after Alex died with an envelope.

“I could tell it was full of money, so I put it in my drawer because I couldn’t open anything for three days,” John said. “I opened it and read the note. It had $500 and ones, fives, and tens all crumbled up. For my wife and I, it literally rocked our world. We cried.”

“Those little acts of kindness like that just blow you away. I’m a different person. I can’t explain it; I don’t understand it,” he said. “But I know I’ll be there for the next guy who loses his son. If only a card or a pie or just to go by with a letter, I’ll be there because now I see how important that is. Before, I took that all for granted.”

Before the auction ended, John spoke to everyone in attendance. Part of the reason he and Crystal moved to Ashland was for the feel of a smaller community and knowing their children’s friends and parents.

“I want to tell everybody that all their kids are good kids — they have it together,” he said. “I would have never lived anywhere else. Thank you so much.”

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