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Girl Battling Cancer Wins Academic Medal

Scholars: Laura Gipson of Escondido team puts off brain surgery to compete.

March 20, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Before the state finals of the Academic Decathlon last Friday, Laura Gipson told her Orange Glen High School teammates: I hope I don't let you down.

After all, she was an "A" member of the team from Escondido, which in November defeated academic powerhouses such as La Jolla High to represent San Diego County at the state competition for the third year in a row.

"I told them I would be sorry if my scores weren't that great," she recalled.

It was more than pre-contest jitters that made Laura worry about her performance.

Six weeks ago, surgeons removed about a third of the right front lobe of her brain, trying to eradicate a fast-growing cancerous tumor. They didn't succeed. Another operation would be needed, but Laura insisted it be put off until after the state contest.

This afternoon, the 17-year-old accepted at every college she has applied to goes under the knife again at UCLA Medical Center. Surgeons guided by a computerized image will take out most of the rest of her brain's front right lobe. Her wide-ranging intelligence and quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor should not be affected, her doctors tell her. But she knows she will have only a slim chance--perhaps one in 20--of surviving beyond two years.

As she prepares for the operation, Laura takes with her more than good wishes.

At the awards ceremony Sunday morning, the team from El Camino High School in Woodland Hills was named the state winner. Her team finished 14th out of 44 competitors and Laura wasn't counting on winning any individual honors, not with how she'd struggled to remember her geography and to concentrate during the math.

"Then," she said, "they called my name and after that, nothing else mattered."

Laura had won a silver medal for getting the second-highest score in her division on essay writing, one portion of the grueling two-day intellectual challenge.

Her topic? Juggling the time commitment required to do well in the decathlon.

"For just a moment," said her mother, Penny Gipson, "it was wonderful."

Members of the generation on the cusp of adulthood often are portrayed by their elders as immature party animals with little time for academics. But that stereotype has never fit Laura Gipson.

A senior with straight blond hair, a dimpled chin and lively blue eyes inherited from her father, she always has worked hard on her studies, taking the toughest courses and getting almost all A's. "If I got a B . . . I really didn't like it," she said.

Last year, she decided--on her own--to read as many of the classic works of literature as possible, among them Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Jane Austen's novels and "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte.

Last summer, after being selected for a spot on the decathlon team, she stopped riding horses competitively.

"For my kids, the commitment is massive," said Pat Boldt, the Orange Glen teacher who coached the decathlon team and taught Laura advanced placement calculus, during an extra period that began every morning at 6:30 a.m.

Each year, Boldt personally puts up the money to buy study materials for the decathlon team. During the summer, the members--three A students, three B students and three C students--met at her house for three hours each day.

When Laura's brief bouts of dizziness began in October, she shook them off. Her parents made a doctors appointment, but she was wrapped up in the decathlon and missed it.

After the team won the San Diego title in November, Boldt called it her strongest squad ever. Laura, in turn, vowed to earn at least one individual medal in the next round of the prestigious competition. So she studied extra hard.

In January, however, she blacked out for a moment and had a minor traffic accident on the 25-minute drive from school to the Gipson's home in rural Valley Center. That's when the tumor was discovered.

Her first surgery was Feb. 4. For two weeks afterward, she was too tired to study. When she could stay awake, her first priority was tackling an accumulated mountain of homework--she's taking three advanced placement classes--to stay on track for graduation.

Her mother, a nurse, took a leave of absence to be close by. Her father Larry, a self-employed engineer who designs computer chips, searched the Internet to make himself an expert on brain cancer, then decided to get a second opinion from a research center in Houston. Doctors there recommended a second operation.

They told the Gipsons that her tumor probably has been growing slowly for some time in the tissue that is the brain's superstructure--rather than the neurons that carry on the actual thinking. But it had begun to metamorphose into a type that is among the fastest-growing of all cancers.

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