By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
URSA, Ill. -- Patrick Weppler paused, trying his best to explain his family's situation.
"You feel, at times, like ... like you are drowning," he said, searching for that precise body of thought that might help the rest of the world relate to what is an extraordinary burden.
But he's unable to come up with any sort of collection of words to do justice to what he, wife Leila and the rest of their immediate and extended families are confronting.
"We just keep ... swimming," he said.
The Wepplers' 3-year-old son, Jackson, is battling a rare form of cancer -- hepatoblastoma -- that has covered 90 percent of his liver.
When diagnosed late last fall, specialists at St. Louis Children's Hospital hoped to shrink the tumor covering his liver enough to be able to remove it and do a transplant.
Two weeks ago, however, the Wepplers were advised the cancer is now intertwined in blood vessels and a transplant is no longer a possibility.
The St. Louis specialists said there was nothing more they could do.
Patrick and Leila immediately began their own research and found two hospitals -- one in Pittsburgh and one in Cincinnati --that agreed to review the case to see if there may be some type of procedure that might be attempted to help Jackson.
On Sunday, the hospital in Pittsburgh called and said doctors there were willing to examine and test Jackson to see if they could find a silver lining of hope. Jackson is undergoing a plethora of medical work this week, and then the doctors will evaluate the situation.
"It is stressful," Patrick said.
Tammy Bruns is a good friend of the family, and one of many helping to coordinate some fundraising efforts to assist the Wepplers.
"Both Patrick and Leila have been away from their jobs -- with no money coming in -- in an effort to be with their son," Bruns said. "We are trying to raise enough money to pay their bills so they don't lose their home or cars."
Bruns has to stop and catch her breath on occasion. She is very close to the situation and her emotions often get the best of her.
"Patrick and Leila are amazing people," she said. "There's a lot of ups and downs for them. They are the strongest people I have ever met -- not once have I heard them say, ‘Why us?' Through all of this, Jackson has remained a happy little boy. He always has a smile on his face."
Patrick recalls how unexpected the devastating news about Jackson was to the family.
"This all sort of came out of left field," he said. "When we were bathing Jackson, we noticed a lump on his stomach, but he did not have any pain. We took him to the doctor (Oct. 31) to have it checked out and the next thing we knew we were at St. Louis Children's Hospital."
Jackson was found to have a "large mass" in his stomach, which was found to be a stage 3 liver cancer called hepatoblastoma. Treatment was started immediately.
"(Jackson) has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy, which failed to shrink the tumor," Patrick said.
Hepatoblastoma normally occurs in infants and affects an estimated one in every 1.5 million children. And like in Jackson, it is usually detected through an abdominal mass during a child's first three years.
Hepatoblastoma also has a track record of occurring in infants born prematurely. Jackson was born 10 1/2 weeks early.
"The night they found out that doctors in St. Louis said there was nothing they could do, I talked with Leila on the phone for 3 1/2 hours," Bruns said. "There were (lots of) ... tears."
Support is pouring in through social media outlets, especially Facebook, where more than 1,700 are pulling and praying for Team Jackson. There has been a prayer vigil at Quincy University and another is planned. A growing list of friends is trying to raise money for the Wepplers to help with compounding expenses.
When Jackson was born prematurely, he spent 12 weeks in the intensive care unit at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. The nurses there began calling him "Mike Tyson" because of his fighting spirit.
After 12 weeks, Jackson got to come home, ready to start his life as a normal, healthy baby boy.
The Wepplers are hoping for a repeat of that scenario.
"My voice gets shaky and I want to cry when I think about all of this," Bruns said. "But I know (we) have to stay strong for them."
Bruns said she asks all who can to remember the Wepplers need two specific things right now.
"With neither having been able to work, they obviously need monetary donations," she said. "But most of all, they need ... prayer."
HOW TO HELP
• For information on how to donate to assist Jackson Weppler, go to www.youcaring.com and type in "Team Jackson."
• A benefit will be held for the Weppler family 4 p.m. to midnight March 9 at the Knights of Columbus in Quincy, 700 S. 36th.