They say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes no amount of love and support or even medical attention can overcome some obstacles. Jeffrey Allen Westrup died Nov. 8 from cancer, but not without a fight. He, his family, and the Juneau community have been fighting for his survival for decades.
Diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a precursor to leukemia, at the age of 10, after years of tests and various other health problems, Westrup (who changed his last name from Haley around the time he graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School) and his family had but one hope — a bone marrow transplant. According to Westrup’s mother, Penny Carter, the Juneau community helped to raise more than $30,000 for Westrup, allowing the family to seek the necessary treatment and find a donor, as well as make ends meet while living in Seattle for his treatment.
On Nov. 8, 1994, a donor was found for Westrup and the transplant took place on Nov. 30, 1994, known as his bone marrow birthday. He suffered a series of infections that kept him in the hospital for eight months, twice the normal four-month stay, but he made it.
Upon his return to Juneau after the long process, he was greeted by the community and honored with a place atop a float in the July 4 parade. At the time, a float was one of the few places he could safely observe the crowded parade, as his immune system was weak and his body didn’t have the strength to fight off another infection. Doctors had given him a 50 percent chance of living, said Carter.
As time went on, Westrup was able to lead a more normal life. He was eventually able to return to school and spend time with friends. He was also an avid chess player, placing second among Juneau middle school students in a 1998 tournament.
In 1999, five years after his transplant, he was considered disease free. He had beaten the odds, though he still had a higher than normal chance of future cancer diagnoses.
In 2003, after nine years of working hard at leading a normal life, Westrup’s streak was broken and he was diagnosed with skin cancer. The melanoma was removed completely and it seemed he had made it again.
That same year, Carter returned to her home state of Colorado, bringing her children with her. Though Westrup had graduated high school, Carter was happy to have him join her with his four other siblings.
“Even though Jeffrey was old enough to be on his own, he came with me to make sure mom was OK,” Carter said.
After several years in Colorado, Westrup returned to Juneau, where he still had family and friends.
He had no trouble finding a job, said Carter, who reported he had started working within a few days of his return. He had developed new friendships and got to spend time with his sister, with whom he was very close.
“Things were really starting to come together for him,” said Heather Bayless, a friend of Westrup’s, “then suddenly, he was sick again.”
To friends in Juneau, things seemed to be going well for Westrup. Bayless recalls he was in the running for a new job and that his social life was flourishing. When Westrup was well, one wouldn’t guess he had gone through and was going through so much.
His return to Juneau, Carter said, was due in part to burgeoning medical issues. She said he had never managed to find a job that offered him medical benefits, and in Alaska, as a person of Alaska Native heritage, he could receive the care he needed.
On June 3, he was transported by medevac to Anchorage. It was known that he would have a higher risk of cancer after surviving myelodysplastic syndrome and the treatment, but it still shocked friends and family when he was diagnosed with cancer again at age 27.
In the months that followed, lives were upturned. Westrup spent many of the final months of his life at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, while family and friends remained in Juneau and Colorado aside from visits.
Carter detailed numerous lengthy stays in Anchorage; she had the toughest experiences of her life watching her first-born son cope with his illness while she was often far away.
Family friends in the area were able to provide company and comfort for Westrup when family wasn’t there and as sick as he was, Westrup managed to befriend other hospital patients and staff.
In early November, Carter brought her son back to Colorado with her, where she could care for him and he could be with family. Despite the severity of his illness at the end, Carter’s recollections of the final months and weeks of his life detail Westrup’s sense of humor as well as his love and appreciation for the people in his life.
He would joke about the medical procedures, he would lighten the mood when Carter would get sentimental, and he would pass time singing songs with his own lyrical twist. In the end, when Westrup and his family knew he wouldn’t be with them for much longer, he joked with Carter about sprinkling his ashes in a water feature at her home in Colorado.
“Wait a minute,” Carter recalls her son saying, “Do your cats drink out of it? Never mind, just keep them in the urn.”
“That was Jeff’s quirky sense of humor,” said Carter.
Though he experienced pain and hardship from a young age, he also experienced a devoted family and generous community. The way Carter described it, Westrup loved and appreciated every moment of his life and all the people in it.