Former volunteer and teacher get support during cancer struggle from La Jolla Elementary School community

Retired La Jolla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Allison Carpenter and her husband, Hugh, a former LJES volunteer
Retired La Jolla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Allison Carpenter and her husband, Hugh, a former LJES volunteer, are struggling with his terminal cancer.
(Courtesy of Allison Carpenter)

Building on a lifetime of community connection, Hugh and Allison Carpenter are grateful to those who have been helping to ease the strain of his fight against cancer.

Hugh, 67, a former volunteer in his wife Allison’s La Jolla Elementary School kindergarten classroom, has been told the disease is terminal. Allison retired in December 2020 to care for him after 41 years of teaching.

To help the Carpenters with their extensive medical bills, La Jollan Kristin Slaughter, whose children were students of Allison’s beginning in 2013, established at GoFund Me account that as of June 14 had raised more than $21,500.

“Allison and Hugh have been an absolute gift to the La Jolla community for decades,” Slaughter said. “The love, kindness and dedication they brought to the children and families of La Jolla Elementary is absolutely unmatched.”

Hugh has fought cancer since receiving a melanoma diagnosis in 2018, contracted from a staph/strep infection on his lower calf.

“It looked like purple blob art,” Allison said.

Hugh underwent surgery after surgery as doctors tried to remove all the cancerous cells. Each operation meant weeks of recovery time, during which Hugh was immobile due to painful skin grafts.

After about six months, the Carpenters, who have lived in Allison’s native Ocean Beach since marrying 38 years ago, learned the cancer had metastasized to Hugh’s lymph nodes.

Hugh began immunotherapy treatments, similar to chemotherapy, every two weeks for months until doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs.

“It was hard, but we were grateful,” Allison said.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw another challenge their way, as new safety protocols meant doctors had Hugh come in monthly instead of every two weeks for immunotherapy, doubling the dose.

With such high doses, Hugh, who had previously tolerated treatments well, began experiencing “all the side effects,” Allison said.

On a weekend away on Catalina Island in August 2020, Hugh began bleeding inexplicably and profusely, necessitating an emergency helicopter ride to a hospital in Long Beach.

Doctors discovered the treatments had heavily damaged Hugh’s organs, Allison said, causing the blood loss that required 16 transfusions within a day or two.

“I didn’t know if he was going to make it,” she said.

Once home and his organs healing, Hugh then contracted Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare and serious disorder of the skin and mucous membranes that turned much of his skin black and rendered him unable to speak or move.

“It came up in one afternoon, within an hour,” he said. “The next day I couldn’t walk.”

Hugh was taken to the UC San Diego Burn Center’s intensive care unit — Allison couldn’t accompany him because of pandemic restrictions — and he underwent treatments to remove the dead skin.

The mounting costs of the unexpected treatments total well over six figures, with recurring bills of more than $2,000 from previous hospitalizations, procedures and tests.

More concerning than the financial cost, however, was the toll on Hugh’s body and its ability to bear repeated, intense procedures.

Then in September 2020, the Carpenters were told “it’s time for hospice,” Allison said. “It’s terminal.”

She decided to retire to take care of Hugh in their home. “I wasn’t expecting to retire,” she said. “I really did love it.”

At the time, doctors expected Hugh to live six more months. More than 20 months later, “we’re grateful for every second together,” Allison said.

“His attitude is unbelievable,” she said. “Every morning he wakes up and says, ‘I’m so excited about our new adventures today.’”

Hugh Carpenter loved working with the students at La Jolla Elementary School. The affection went both ways.
(Courtesy of Allison Carpenter)

“The La Jolla community has been so sweet,” she said. In addition to the financial contributions, families set up a welcome-home sign ahead of one of their returns from the hospital.

Hugh said he loves the people at LJES. “The teachers were amazing.”

“He’s so connected to the kids,” Allison said.

“They send us college graduation and wedding announcements,” Hugh said, naming dozens of students from years past. “It’s amazing how they still stay in touch.”

Hugh began volunteering in Allison’s class years ago after retiring from his work in commercial construction.

He would run the classroom’s computers, read with children, sweep the playground and do “whatever Allison needed,” he said.

He also began running the music for LJES’ weekly Pledge of Allegiance assemblies.

“Every Friday was a dance party,” Hugh said.

The Carpenters thanked the La Jolla Elementary families for their love and support over the years.

“We still are grateful for everything,” Allison said.

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