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Photographer Zachary Kaufman reflects on covering Caitlyn Lippolis at The Columbian's new photo blog
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Caitlyn Lippolis and her family were featured in a Nov. 4 Columbian story about families struggling to pay for living expenses and medical costs not covered by health insurance.
After the story ran, the community donated more than $2,000 to help the Lippolises make ends meet.
"That's what got us through this month," said Robert Lippolis, Caitlyn's dad. "If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have made it. This community saved us."
With those funds exhausted, the family is trying to come up with the money to pay for Caitlyn's funeral expenses. The family's donation account, the "Caitlyn Lippolis Family Fund," remains open at iQ Credit Union.
Caitlyn Lippolis had years of living left to do.
Once she had mastered walking with a prosthetic leg — the result of bone cancer in her leg — the 12-year-old planned to ride her bike again, to go swimming. She would start school in Vancouver, her new town, and make new friends. She had books to write, stories to tell, pictures to paint.
But in a month’s time, Caitlyn went from a bubbly, optimistic preteen to a girl fighting for her life.
The cancer that took her leg in June took her life Wednesday afternoon. After nine months of doctors, surgeries and chemotherapy, Caitlyn took her last breath just before 2 p.m.
“She had all of us there with her,” said Robert Lippolis, Caitlyn’s father. “She was not alone.”
Caitlyn and the Lippolis family were featured in two Columbian articles published on Nov. 4. The same day the community got a glimpse into the life of a preteen amputee determined to live her life the fullest, the family learned Caitlyn’s cancer had been stronger than the chemotherapy.
“The day the article came out was the day we found out this had become terminal,” Robert said.
The pain started in the early morning hours of Nov. 3.
Caitlyn told her parents it hurt to take deep breaths. Later in the day, she started running a fever. They took Caitlyn to the hospital, where doctors ran tests for an infection and took an X-ray of her chest.
The X-ray results, and a subsequent CAT scan, blindsided the family. Caitlyn had developed nearly 30 tumors on her lungs, all while undergoing the most aggressive chemotherapy treatment available. Caitlyn’s form of cancer, osteosarcoma, doesn’t respond to radiation. The number of tumors made surgery impossible.
The oncologist told Robert that Caitlyn had, at most, six months to live. She died 23 days later.
After finding out about the tumors, Caitlyn’s health declined quickly, taking her usually upbeat spirit with it.
Robert and the family devoted themselves to Caitlyn, doing whatever it took to make her smile, giving her anything to make her comfortable.
She spent an afternoon on the set of “Grimm,” a TV show filmed in Portland, talking to the actors, touring the different sets and watching the crew film scenes. Caitlyn became a loyal “Grimm” fan after meeting a handful of the show’s actors a few months ago while she was a patient at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
“She had the time of her life,” Robert said of the set visit. “She just loved it. It was, by far, one of the best times she’s had.”
The Make-A-Wish foundation arranged a private screening of the new “Twilight” movie for Caitlyn, her family and a few friends. They rented out a movie parlor at Cinetopia, allowing Caitlyn and her guests to watch the movie in comfort. The foundation also paid for a four-day trip to Seattle for the family.
Caitlyn spent Thanksgiving with a handful of family members, but the holiday was tough for Caitlyn. She couldn’t eat and her stomach was swelling, causing her to cry out in pain.
A surgeon at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center eased the pain Friday, draining a liter of the fluid surrounding Caitlyn’s lungs. Doctors gave her days to live.
Caitlyn’s family didn’t leave her side.
“It’s so hard to sit in that chair and watch your daughter take a breath and let it out,” Robert said. “It’s like your heart stops until she takes another one.”
“I was afraid the next one she was going to take would be her last,” he said.
As Caitlyn neared the end of her life, Robert spent time talking with his daughter about death. He tried to explain to his 12-year-old that there was more for her than life on earth. He told her not to be afraid. He told her something better would come next.
What Robert didn’t tell Caitlyn was he was beginning to question those beliefs. Maybe God and heaven are just part of a fairy tale for adults, he reasoned.
“It’s a very dark place to go,” he said.
But then Caitlyn restored his faith.
While lying in her bed Tuesday, Caitlyn opened her eyes. She told Robert she had just seen Troy, her aunt’s dog. Caitlyn didn’t know Troy was put down two weeks earlier; the family didn’t have the heart to tell her.
“For her to see that re-inspired so much faith that there is something better,” Robert said. “It was one of the few things that’s given me comfort through this. She’s not alone. She’s not in darkness. There is something after. She is somewhere better.”
Caitlyn is survived by her father; her mother, Jamie Simmons; her stepmother Chrissy Lippolis; her stepfather Kane Clinton; her sisters Ali and Lindsay Lippolis; and her stepsister Taylor Clinton. Funeral services are pending.