This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, with support from the Gertrude Blumenthal Kasbekar Fund.
A pixielike girl with big blue eyes and long brown hair, Hannah Samarripa began experiencing headaches and fatigue in the middle of eighth grade. By the time the spring dance rolled around, Hannah didn’t have the strength to paint her own toenails. Her mother, Becky Samarripa, did it for her, and then drove Hannah to school and waited outside, knowing she’d be able to put in only a brief appearance. The teenager’s mysterious decline continued on to limping, vomiting, incontinence and—perhaps her most disturbing symptom—occasional fits of barking laughter that sounded so strange and demonic, her father wondered whether she was on drugs. Then, in the summer before ninth grade, while her family was visiting a Civil War memorial on the coast of Alabama, Hannah collapsed.
Still, it was a full six months later, when a doctor spotted her brain tumor during an eye exam—literally seeing the growth through the lens of Hannah’s eye—that the 14-year-old got the diagnosis and then the surgery that saved her life.
When Hannah got sick in 2007, her mother had no idea that, just a few blocks away in the Acreage—their lush South Florida community—other children had also suffered through the same awful symptoms. Had she known about Jessica Newfield, who was close to her daughter’s age and had been ill for many months before being diagnosed; Joey Baratta, who developed two tumors before dying at age 20; or little Jenna McCann, who got sick at age 3, perhaps she’d have gotten Hannah’s tumor diagnosed sooner.
But it would take all of the afflicted families years to connect the dots among their tragedies.
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Hannah Samarripa in 2009, when she was 15 (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)
When Becky heard from a friend that another child in the neighborhood had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor, “I was like: what is going on?” Just after Hannah underwent surgery to remove her tumor, and less than a year after the boy—a 5-year-old named Garrett Dunsford—had his brain surgery, the parents started talking.
At the time, neither Jennifer Dunsford nor Becky Samarripa considered that her child’s illness might be part of something larger. “I figured it was a weird coincidence,” says Dunsford, a sharp-witted mother of three with glasses and shoulder-length brown hair. Like Samarripa, Dunsford was consumed with her own crisis—first, Garrett’s loss of the use of his left hand and arm; then, his misdiagnosis (Garrett’s doctor thought he had a sore elbow); and after his brain tumor was discovered, the failure of surgery to completely remove it.