Oaklee Grace Gentry is a very happy 14-month-old girl whose parents woke up on the morning of Dec. 28 to find her unresponsive and with a severely swollen left eye. She was lethargic and had gotten sick during the night. Knowing something was seriously wrong, Oaklee’s mom called the hospital and she was soon airlifted by Pegasus to UVA hospital where within an hour, a tumor was found covering a significant portion of her brain.
“My sister actually rode in Pegasus with Oaklee,” said Ashley Lawson, Oaklee’s aunt. “She told the pilot, ‘I don’t care who you have to lie to but I’m getting in this helicopter. I’m not leaving her.’ So she rode to the hospital in the helicopter. When we got there I would say it was probably within an hour they had found a mass on Oaklee’s brain and they said it was a quarter the size of her brain.”
The pressure on little Oaklee’s brain was dangerously close to rupturing her swollen eye, and she was rushed into the operating room within an hour of arrival. Five intense hours later, the doctors proclaimed they had been able to remove 95% of the tumor, relieving the pressure and draining the fluid buildup around the brain. The surgery had most definitely saved Oaklee’s life, but her journey would not end there.
Katie and Jordan Gentry, Oaklee’s parents, had fought for their baby from day one when, unable to become pregnant naturally, they turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments to conceive and were blessed with twins. Sixteen weeks into the pregnancy, they found out they had lost Oaklee’s twin sister, and Oaklee was born premature, weighing just over 3 pounds. But the couple never gave up and after three weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they brought home their happy, healthy baby girl. They never imagined the fight they would go through just one short year later. To complicate the emotional toll they are going through, Jordan’s mother, a well-known local hairdresser, passed away from brain cancer just a few years ago.
“To get to where we are now is just overwhelming,” Lawson said. “I have told everybody that I have to believe God is not going to take her from us because of everything that we have already been through to get her.”
Dr. Hasan Syed, co-founder of the Global Brainsurgery Initiative, which aims to improve training for neurosurgeons around the world, performed the life-saving surgery on Oaklee last month. Although the remaining 5% of the tumor was deemed too dangerous to remove at the time, the doctors were hopeful that further treatment could resolve the issue once Oaklee had recovered from the initial surgery.
Within a day, a friend of a friend was designing sticker decals reading “OakleeStrong,” which would be sold at Smalltown Vinyls & Customs in Madison. All proceeds go directly to the family to help offset the mounting medical costs.
“It’s such a blessing to live in a community who can pull together to help others in need,” said Elizabeth Howey, who, together with her husband Josh, owns the store that is selling the decals. Shipping for free or meeting locally in Greene throughout the month of January, the decals can also be found on Etsy.
An MRI on Dec. 30 showed that Oaklee’s incision was healing well. The doctors were able to remove the drainage tube and she got a few stitches before being moved out of the ICU into a regular pediatric unit.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, she was released from UVA to recover at home with her family. By this time, family and friends from all over the state had heard the news and were stepping up to show their support in every way possible; the parents received donations of snacks and personal items to sustain them during their stay in the hospital, and countless friends and family members stopped by to keep them company, pray with them or visit during waking hours.
By the time Oaklee was sleeping in her own bed again, Sugar on Top Cakes & Sweets in Madison was selling “OakleeStrong” cookies (with proceeds donated to the family) and had set up a donation jar in their shop. The shop’s owner, Brittany, is a friend of Oaklee’s aunt and said that “it’s crazy how small the world can be sometimes and how we are connected to people.”
County Line Country Mercantile in Barboursville began selling the “OakleeStrong” decals and stickers on Jan. 2 for $5, with proceeds going to the family.
On Jan. 7, Katie and Jordan received the pathology results from the tumor. Oaklee has stage three brain cancer and will need to undergo chemotherapy. The treatments will take Oaklee and her parents somewhere other than UVA, as the aggressive treatment regimen and medicines needed are best treated at another medical center.
As they wait for the neurologists and oncologists to determine the best course of action, Oaklee’s family rallied the community in support of this family’s battle with candlelight prayers, “OakleeStrong” wristbands (designed by Makenzie Durrer Morris with proceeds to go to the family) and the creation of a GoFundMe account, to be managed by great-aunt Chastity Hall from Barboursville so that Oaklee’s parents can remain focused on her care.
While Katie and Jordan were taking leaves of absence from their jobs, Jordan designed a T-shirt, which is on sale at rvlifereimagined.com. The company is making the shirts at cost for the family and is taking no profit on the shirts so 100% of the proceeds can go toward Oaklee’s medical treatments. Short- or long-sleeved shirts can be picked up in Ruckersville or shipped for a small fee after Jan. 19.
Both parents are employed with UVA and Katie actually works at the ‘battle building’ at UVA Children’s hospital, in the outpatient operating room. Her coworkers have been steadfast friends and Katie said she has received the best care possible during their stay.
“We were at dinner and Katie said this has been the best care that she’s experienced,” Lawson said. “She said she has absolutely no complaints, everybody from the time the ambulance came to when Pegasus got there, from the surgery to the hospital stay she said it’s been phenomenal.”
On Jan. 10, oncologists decided to pursue molecular testing on the removed tumor, courtesy of St. Jude’s research hospital. From there they will decide the best place to provide Oaklee’s treatment. They will also be doing a lumbar puncture on Jan. 17 to check for cancer cells in her spinal fluid and placing a chemotherapy port in her chest the following week to eliminate the need for repeated needle punctures as she goes through treatments.
While Oaklee and her parents enjoyed breakfast at Lydia Mountain’s Bearrr Appetit restaurant on Jan. 11, Kim of K5designs on Etsy was designing more T-shirts in honor of Oaklee, with proceeds to be added to the growing support fund. The next day, the Church of Solsburg in Elkton was packed with folks wishing to show their support as Oaklee was dedicated in front of friends and family.
“To look at her and be around her, you would never know she is sick,” Lawson said. “She is like she’s always been; she’s always smiling; she’s always happy and laughing. You would just never know that something is wrong.”
The show of support from local businesses continues to grow, and Double Horseshoe Saloon in Charlottesville announced a benefit night for Oaklee to be held Jan. 24-25. Ten percent of all sales that weekend will go to the family and there will be a 50-50 drawing Friday night. On Jan. 27, the Ruckersville Walmart will have a benefit for Oaklee with food, fellowship and community by “Team Spark” with hot dogs and chili for sale.
Clemmie Estes, electronics department manager and member of the Children’s Miracle Network committee for the Ruckersville Walmart, organized the event with help from Tariek Humes and Becky Shifflett.
“We are always willing to help the local community out, and it makes our hearts happy to help local families,” Estes said. She had heard the story via Facebook and immediately took steps to organize a fundraising event for her community.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s been encouraging and rewarding to have so many people in our community and that we work with … just to feel like everybody is behind us in this situation has been amazing,” Lawson said.
Two more benefit events have already been planned for February. Solid Rock Gospel Church of Barboursville will hold a benefit on Feb. 21 with live music, a silent auction and food. Items for the silent auction are being donated by local businesses and all proceeds will benefit the Gentry family.
Barboursville Volunteer Fire Company is hosting a spaghetti dinner on Feb. 22 with half of all proceeds going to the family as well, and there are rumors of a musical benefit event in the works to be held at the William Monroe High School auditorium in March featuring some local bands. Family friends Julie and Mike Smith are also putting together a Super Bowl benefit with proceeds to go to Oaklee’s family for whatever they need during her treatments.
“From the day that Oaklee went to the ER … from that day there were already people asking ‘what can we do?’” Lawson said. “People have been giving money, they have gotten a GoFundMe set up, and the church is doing their benefit in February. People are making shirts and bracelets, decals and just so many different things and it’s just been overwhelming but in a good way. It’s definitely nice to know that we have such a support system.
“Our biggest thing that we’re asking for is prayers,” Lawson continued. “That’s the most important thing to us; that’s what we absolutely need.”
You can find more information about how to support the family by visiting @OakleeStrong on Facebook or GoFundMe or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.