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Loss of son leads her to help those who suffer

(ran North, East editions of Pasco Times)

Cindy Tompkins' joy turned to sorrow on her 27th birthday, one week after giving birth to her first son.

That's when she learned little Travis had a malignant tumor. He was due to begin chemotherapy treatments the following week.

Tompkins' first thought was that she didn't want to become attached. She immediately motioned to a friend sitting at her bedside to "take him."

"But that lasted about 10 seconds," said Tompkins, now 40, who couldn't forcibly distance herself from her newborn.

Twelve years have passed since Tompkins and her husband, Mike, lost Travis due to complications with his chemotherapy treatments. They have thought about him every day since. And the experience caused them to take new directions in their lives: Both went back to school. Both changed careers. And both worked on keeping their family together.

"Because of the nurses at All Children's (Hospital in St. Petersburg) constantly involving me and constantly teaching me, when my son died, I thought, "I can do this,' " said Cindy Tompkins.

She gave up her job as a bank teller to become a licensed practical nurse. She's studying to become a certified nurse and has been employed at Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center the past two years.

The Tompkinses had a healthy 3-year-old girl when Travis was born in April 1991. They had no warning that their newborn son would be diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare malignant tumor that affects muscle tissue.

"He was probably in the hospital more than he was out," Cindy Tompkins said.

Travis came home for the first time when he was 1-month-old. But between then and December, he was in the hospital every three weeks for an injection that required a five-day hospital stay.

Every two weeks, Travis received additional injections. Around his first Christmas, Travis' condition began to deteriorate. By March 1992, he had to return to the hospital indefinitely and was put on a respirator. The chemotherapy had worked, but now Travis had no immune system, and he contracted pneumonia.

Cindy Tompkins took comfort with the other mothers at the hospital whose children were also fighting for their lives. The nurses became emotionally invested and cried with her. Of the 40 or so mothers whom Tompkins befriended, she remembers, one by one, each child not making it.

With each death, she grieved with the mother, as if their child were her own. Travis spent his first birthday, April 12, 1992, in the Intensive Care Unit. A web of wires connected his small body to machines that kept him alive. When the Tompkinses entered Travis' hospital room that day, they found a birthday card signed by Travis' doctors and nurses and a 4-foot-tall white and gray rabbit.

"There were things done for me at All Children's that I will remember forever" Cindy Tompkins said. "And they were done for me, not for Travis."

"Those things mean a lot to patients," she added. "That's why, on the nursing end of it now, I know both sides. I know what the nurses are going through and I know what the patients are going through, watching."

The Tompkinses knew their son's health was worsening. "Finally, we had to unplug him," Cindy Tompkins said. Travis died on June 27, 1992. Cindy Tompkins doesn't remember much of that year, although her husband tells her that she spent it staring at the ceiling, wondering what went wrong.

"We had to come to the realization that what happened was neither one of our faults," said Mike Tompkins, now 40. "People look for somebody to blame when they go through a tragedy, and you come to the realization that there's nobody to blame. He was born that way, but our belief in God, that's honestly what got us through."

The couple began to recover by changing their lifestyles. Mike Tompkins left his job as a landscape contractor and returned to school to study computers and electrical engineering. Now, he's a Realtor at Century 21 in Crystal River.

Ten months after Travis' death, Cindy Tompkins began working part-time jobs. She learned how to draw blood at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, where Travis was born, and later earned her LPN license at a technical school in Clearwater.

"Now, when I look at his labs, I think, "Wow, he was in trouble that day,' "Tompkins said.

This year will mark Tompkins' 10th year as a nurse, where she has been able to use her experience to empathize with patients. "The day that I don't care about that any more is the day that I'll quit nursing, because those nurses at All Children's helped me a lot," Tompkins said. "I know that they had a bad day, but I never saw it."

It took about seven years for the couple to develop some sense of normalcy, although 12 years since Travis' death they say the pain still exists. The holidays aren't an easy time for them; neither is Cindy's birthday, Mother's Day or the period around Travis' death.

"Where I still look at the babies, he (her husband) still looks at the teenage boys," Cindy Tompkins said. Travis would have turned 14 this year.

"I tend to look at the teenage boys and think about all the things that I never got to do _ like playing ball, going to the races and camping," Mike Tompkins said. "Every father wants a son, that's not slighting my daughter in any way, but that's a special thing. You just wonder what it would have been like."

When Largo began to grow, the Tompkinses moved to rural Dunnellon, and Cindy's parents later joined them next door. Cindy said she felt like she was leaving behind Travis, who's buried at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park in Largo, but took comfort in knowing that her mother-in-law visits his grave regularly.

Besides, it's still painful for Cindy to visit the site. The Tompkinses' daughter, Ashley, is 16 now. The couple still exchange Christmas cards with some of the nurses who supported them. This past November, Cindy volunteered at the Victory Junction camp in North Carolina for children with disabilities.

No amount of time can heal their pain, but distance from Travis' death has made it easier to cope. "Some days are harder than others," said Mike Tompkins. "After all these years, it never goes away. You lost your kid. It's still there. But it's nice to be able to live."