Taken too soon: Family remembers Jennifer Tegley
The entryway of the Tegley family home was filled with flowers, providing some color during a dark time.
Jim and Michelle Tegley lost their 18-year-old daughter Jennifer on Aug 29, 10 months after she was diagnosed with cancer.
The flowers came from the memorial service that nearly overflowed Lakehills Covenant Church Sept. 3. A photo collage captured good times with friends and family. A framed Oak Ridge varsity lacrosse jersey bearing Jennifer’s now-retired No. 10 is titled “Crazy Horse defense,” a reference to the position she shared with her twin sister Heather on the team.
Late last year Jennifer was diagnosed with a stubborn tongue-based cancer so well-disguised and rare that it was only discovered when her tonsils were removed. Her battle and eventual loss struck a chord with El Dorado Hills families.
“What this community has done for us goes so far beyond anything I could every have expected,” said Jim. “I’m humbled.”
With help from her sister, a weakened Jennifer, drained by cancer and months of radiation and chemotherapy, participated in Oak Ridge’s graduation ceremony in late May. She walked across the stage unassisted and received her diploma to a thundering ovation.
Her parents described Jennifer as wholesome and popular girl, strong academically and a good all-around athlete. Her father was particularly proud that she was a strong backpacker; the family enjoyed regular Yosemite backcountry trips.
The cancer took everyone by surprise. “We come from a family that hardly even gets colds,” Michelle said.
Like many young cancer patients, Jennifer’s cancer wasn’t diagnosed early because no one, doctors included, expects it in an 18-year-old.
The first signs of trouble appeared in August 2010, when Jennifer struggled to shake a late summer cold. Her doctor diagnosed a sinus infection and tested for allergies.
By September the lingering cold developed into a sore throat. “But she was still getting straight A’s and not missing school,” Jim said. “We thought it was nothing.”
An ear, nose and throat doctor removed her tonsils and discovered what he assumed was throat cancer, which was very bad news. But it soon got worse.
More testing followed. The final and eventually fatal diagnosis was the tongue-based cancer. At that point, Jim said, “We knew we were looking for a Hail Mary.”
“No one could explain it,” said Michelle, who soon learned that her daughter’s cancer was so rare that pediatric oncologists have no experience with it.
“The average age for this type of cancer is 66, and typically male,” said Jim.
“It’s a drinker and smoker disease,” added Michelle. “She had no risk factors.”
Surgery was considered but it would have been extremely invasive, as well as “difficult and dangerous,” said Jim.
The oncologists at Stanford recommended high-dose chemotherapy and radiation.
The first crisis occurred immediately after the initial round of chemotherapy, when a failed feeding tube caused an abdominal infection. Jennifer was flown to Stanford. Two days later chemotherapy resumed.
Radiation therapy followed in January, accompanied by still more chemo.
The Tegleys were grateful to the hospitality they experienced at the Ronald McDonald house at Stanford, where they stayed for several weeks during the ordeal.
The family also appreciates El Dorado Hills firefighters, who put Jennifer on the fire truck during the Santa Run and sent flowers to the memorial service.
Jim Tegley works for R S Analysis, a commercial heating and air conditioning service company located in the El Dorado Hills Business Park. Family friend Mike Renovich owns the firm. “Mike provided the support we needed to stay with Jennifer at Stanford,” said Jim.
Jennifer ate her last solid meal in November 2010. By January 2011 the treatments had so inflamed her throat that she could no longer speak. Thanks to Facebook and text messaging, she stayed in close contact with friends.
“Sometimes they’d come over to visit and be sort of shocked by her appearance,” said Jim. “She was so cheerful on Facebook they had no idea the severity of this thing.”
Even her family, sitting in the same room, learned to communicate with her by “texting.”
The initial response from the radiation and chemotherapy was promising. But it soon became clear that Jennifer’s 124-pound body, which by then was hovering near 100 pounds, could handle no more. She completed her treatment in February 2011.
After the radiation doctors had a hard time discriminating between inflammation, infection and cancer, “but they knew it wasn’t right,” said Jim.
A gaunt Jennifer posed with her beloved Oak Ridge lacrosse team for a final photo in early March.
In April family friend Sean Hall had the idea for “Team Jenn,” which eventually raised nearly $12,000 to help offset the family’s medical and living expenses during the 10-month treatment, much of which was conducted at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto.
Hall worked closely with Renovich and other friends to create the “Team Jenn” Facebook page, which Renovich described as an outlet for people who “wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do.” The Team Jenn Facebook page is still going strong, and contains reflections from the recent memorial service, as well as photos of Jennifer and her friends.
The lacrosse team sold “Team Jenn” T-shirts and wrist bands. Last May they held a benefit concert in Theater Plaza at Town Center.
Team Jenn eventually raised almost $12,000 for the family, and will live on in Jennifer’s memory, said Renovich, who hopes to help other local families in the Tegley’s situation, or possibly fund a scholarship in Jennifer’s name.
Jennifer was also active in Lakehills Covenant Church’s youth program. During her treatment church families regularly brought the family hearty meals.
“I think they’d still be bringing the comfort food in here if I hadn’t told them to stop,” said Jim with a smile. “They are truly amazing people.”
Members of the congregation also helped the family through the funeral arrangements.
The Tegleys sent out a huge thanks to Pastor Ron Short. “He opened the doors of his church for us … and we’re not even members,” said Jim. “Lakehills was Jennifer’s church.”
Jennifer is survived by her parents Jim and Michelle, as well as Heather and younger sister Anna, 15.
Jim and Michelle said Heather and Anna stayed close to their sister to the end, and are doing as well as can be expected. Despite the 10-month ordeal, Jim said, “It still feels like Jennifer should be walking through the door.”