Stories aren’t supposed to end this way. When I first met Jamie Popielinski, she had just received her puppy, Kipper, as a present from the St. Petersburg-based Children’s Dream Fund in February 2004. Jamie, 8, was in the middle of her 42-week chemotherapy/radiation cancer treatment. She was diagnosed August 2003 with rhabdomyosarcoma in her cheek.
At the time, Jamie and her family —mother Kathy, father Jim, and siblings Kelly, Joe and Katie —were optimistic. The treatment seemed to be working. And aside from the hair Jamie had lost and the tube snaking to her nose, you couldn’t tell she was a cancer patient at all. She giggled and talked in run-on sentences like an 8-year-old. She couldn’t sit on the couch without bopping up and down with boundless energy. Her smile lit up the room.
After I left the Popielinski home that afternoon, I figured I would return to write an update about how Jamie’s faith in God and impossible strength carried her through cancer. I would shoot photos of her — with a full head of hair —atop one of her beloved horses. That’s how the story was supposed to end.
Jamie Ann Popielinski died at 2:30 a.m., Oct. 27, 2005, at home in her mother’s arms. She was 10.
Jim tumbles open a file folder titled, “Jamie’s tumor.” In it rests a collection of notes that Jamie had written to communicate with her family —toward the end, when she couldn’t talk because the tumor was so large that it grew into her mouth.
“She wrote so well,” he says. “Handwriting, grammar, everything.”
In one note, she begs for her dad to change his clothes. He had been wearing the same clothes for days. Maybe a pair of jeans and a different shirt, she suggests.
In another, she apologizes for her behavior and explains that it’s just because of the pain. But she knows better and promises to try harder.
In still another, she suggests that the family go out — just for a little while. God is telling her that this is a good idea, she says.
Jim leafs through the notes, one by one, still amazed by his youngest daughter.
“She never complained,” he remembers. “She would say, ‘I have head pain,’ but she never complained about her illness. She had horrific pain. Countless fevers, head pain. ... She had shingles, bone pain, leg pain. She could hardly stand up, and she still didn’t complain.”
He pauses for a moment, then continues.
“She wanted to live.”
Born May 11, 1995, Jamie was the youngest of the Popielinski clan. And by age 2, she already had shown her predilection for going places.
“She did everything at an early age — she was multi-talented,” Jim says. “She water-skied at 6 years old. Roller-bladed at 2-and-a-half. Rode a motorcycle at age 6. Horses at 3 years old.”
Jamie was an active competitor in the regional pony riding circuit. That was her passion, Jim says. She also loved her family’s annual summer vacation to their lake home in North Carolina, where her stunts on the inner tube had made her a local celebrity.
But she didn’t stop there. Jamie also was an artist, sketching countless self-portraits and lifelike horses. She also had a beautiful singing voice, Jim says, and could play the piano.
She loved country and Christian music. Those were her favorites.
She collected pocketknives and butane lighters — of all things.
“Her life was not in vain,” Jim says. “She touched a lot of people, and she was an example of courage and faith for a lot of people and for children.”
Never giving up
Following her 42-week treatment in September 2004, Jamie’s tests showed conflicting results. The PET scan showed no cancer, but both the MRI and CAT scans revealed what looked like an actual growth in the tumor. But those scans, doctors told the Popielinskis, could be the result of dead tissue.
The Popielinskis believed the PET scan and departed for their North Carolina home for two weeks of vacation. Everything seemed fine until the last night, when Jamie suffered from severe head pain.
The Popielinskis returned to Florida and discovered that her cancer had relapsed. Jamie’s oncologist prescribed more chemotherapy and another surgery in December 2004. But rhabdomyosarcoma is an aggressive, highly malignant tumor, and it wasn’t responding to the treatment.
In January 2005, Jamie’s doctor brought her parents into his office.
There is no hope for Jamie, he told them.
“They didn’t think that there was anything that they, as doctors, could do to help,” Jim says. “She had already had more chemotherapy and radiation than a body could handle.”
Following that meeting, Jamie’s tumor — somehow —began to shrink but reversed itself again in March. The Popielinskis then turned to alternative medicine, spending six weeks at a clinic in Atlanta.
But Jamie’s condition worsened, and she was airlifted back to All Children’s Hospital in late May. Jamie underwent another surgery and remained in the hospital for 50 days. She was released Aug. 1 but was back just a few weeks later for yet another surgery.
Five days after that final surgery, Jamie was back home, receiving treatment from a live-in doctor. As the cancer grew, Jamie asked often about another surgery. But how do you explain to a 10-year-old that another surgery won’t help?
“She never gave up; She was a wonderful child who taught us a lot of lessons,” Jim says.
Eventually, Jamie seemed to understand, Jim says, flipping through her folder. He stops at a note.
I don’t know what has happened to me, but I kind of got over the surgery thing, and I feel like I am trusting in God now.
Heart of a lion
The Popielinski home is quiet today, and the afternoon sun pulls shadows like blankets across the floor. Kipper greets me almost immediately, his tail wagging wildly as he sniffs.
In the study, Jim sets up a large, framed portrait of Jamie atop her horse, Pixie. The photo was taken in January 2005, at Jamie’s last riding competition at Fox Lea Farm in Venice. She won several ribbons there, Jim says. More importantly, she had an unforgettable time.
“That was her passion — riding horses,” he says.
Then, on April 5, 2005, Jamie threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game — another gift from the Children’s Dream Fund.
Thinking back to September 2004 and the conflicting tests, Jim says he and Kathy are glad they went to North Carolina for that summer vacation.
“She (Jamie) would have missed those two-and-a-half weeks with her best friend at the lake,” Jim says. “At least she had that. Nothing else would have changed.”
Throughout her bout with cancer, Jamie continued to inspire friends and family from all over the country. Jim grabs a handful of construction paper hands that people had sent. Some had get-well messages written on the palms, others Bible verses.
“There’s probably a thousand of these,” he says. “The Bible says lay your hands upon the sick. They came from all over.”
Despite everything that was happening to her, Jamie remained devoted to her Christian faith.
“She believed,” Jim says. “She believed in God, and now she’s with Him.”
Nearly 1,000 people attended Jamie’s memorial service Nov. 1 at Sarasota Baptist Church. This isn’t how this story is supposed to end.
She faced every battle with the heart of a lion, the family wrote in a letter to their friends and family. She’s riding high on a beautiful horse in heaven.