Wineka column: Did a liver transplant at age 5 prepare Jettie Patton for a bigger battle years later?
MOCKSVILLE — Jettie Patton never thought she was pretty.
Still, as an infant, she could have passed for a porcelain doll; as an adult, a magazine model. Her family says there was a beauty inside, too.
With all the obstacles life gave her, seemingly from the moment she was born, Jettie showed others a kindness — the proverbial never-met-a-stranger type of person.
“She was just a very nice girl,” said Marlene Ihrie, who came to know the Patton family in 1990 when the Davie County community raised money for Jettie’s liver transplant in Chicago, “and her concern was always for somebody else.”
It wasn’t the liver she received 23 years ago that gave out. Jettie Patton, 28, died Saturday at her parents’ home after a five-year struggle with brain cancer.
Doctors found the tumor on her brain stem in 2008, and while it didn’t seem aggressive at first, Jettie eventually had to give up driving and move back in with her parents, Jerry and Janice Patton. Jettie had lived on her own since she was 18.
Janice Patton cherishes the time she had with her oldest daughter, even under the circumstances. They did everything together.
Just a couple weeks before Jettie’s diagnosis, Janice was laid off from her longtime job with QST Industries. Maybe it was God’s way, Janice says, of making sure she could be there for her.
When the tumor started to grow, it forced Jettie to walk with a cane, then rely on a wheelchair. She went through radiation and chemotherapy, but the tumor kept growing.
One doctor told her mother it was the largest tumor on a brain stem he had seen.
Throughout the ordeal, Jettie kept smiling and following her passions — animals, makeup and shopping. She seemed to collect unwanted strays, and at her death she had eight dogs.
Before and after her cancer diagnosis, Jettie also pursued her love of cosmetology. She often did makeup for teens going to proms and brides for their weddings.
In 2010, the Dream Foundation gave Jettie a three-night stay in New York and the chance to meet one of her idols, makeup artist Bobbi Brown.
And Jettie never stopped shopping, even if she had to go to Target in a wheelchair, her mother says.
Back in 1990, Ihrie led the community effort to help the Pattons travel to Wyler’s Children Hospital in Illinois for the liver transplant. The costs of flights, ambulances and doctors quickly added up. Jettie’s surgery alone was $300,000, which was covered mostly by Janice’s insurance at QST.
“A lot of people got involved,” says Ihrie, who now lives in Statesville.
When she was only six weeks old, the Pattons learned Jettie had a hereditary disease. For each pregnancy in a family where the parents had a certain tendency, there was a one in four chance the baby would have a deficiency, then a 10 to 20 percent chance it would lead to liver disease.
Jettie was fine until being treated for a blood problem connected to cirrhosis in July 1988. The little girl soon began dealing with nose bleeds, fatigue, a bloated stomach, swollen legs and numbness.
Her secondary cirrhosis led to her being put on the list for a liver transplant.
Jettie, then 5, received her new liver in April 1990. It came from a 6-year-old Illinois boy who had died in a house fire. Jettie actually received part of his liver. The other portion went to an 8-month-old girl from New York.
Jettie became known as the miracle child during her stay at the Chicago hospital. At times, Janice Patton wasn’t sure Jettie would make it home. A virus spread through her body. She had some internal bleeding, high temperatures and high blood pressure.
Janice Patton stayed at the Ronald McDonald House and, after a shortage of rooms occurred there, a Hilton Hotel. Jerry was driving 14 hours back and forth to Chicago, often bringing one of Jettie’s two younger sisters with him.
Jettie and sisters Jessica and Julie were like steps on a ladder — a year separating the next in age.
“They were all so close,” Janice says. “They always had been close since they were little babies.”
Jettie didn’t return from the Chicago hospital until June 22, 1990.
Janice Patton says Jettie missed a lot of school, especially in the early grades of elementary school, as she fended off illnesses such as pneumonia and chicken pox.
But she eventually fell into a more regular childhood routine at Mocksville Elementary, South Davie Middle School and Davie High School, where she graduated in 2002.
Janice Patton says her daughter had a great sense of humor — and did her best to keep it, though it was difficult.
She even named the brain tumor, calling it “Stewie.”
“Mamma,” she would tell Janice when she wasn’t feeling particularly well, “I think Stewie is acting up again.”
Jettie Patton really was a miracle child when it came to her transplant. She outlived the others in her group of people who had undergone liver transplants at the children’s hospital at the same time.
“She was really blessed,” Janice says.
In a February post on her Facebook page, Jettie Patton wrote:
“I could go on and on about how my health is getting worse. My eyesight is bad and my right side is giving me some trouble. I can’t keep harping on the bad things in life. I am a Christian and always have been. I was brought up that way. I used to fear death, but now I don’t. I know where I’m going and I can’t wait to get there. I’m not going to speed up the process, I’m just not afraid anymore. I have accepted the fact that I am sick, I am not going to get better. I cannot keep on worrying about what could happen next, that’s no way to live. I still need prayers! I love all of you and you all will always be in my heart!”
The Patton family will have a memorial service for Jettie at 2 p.m. Saturday at Liberty United Methodist Church.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.