Tom Archdeacon: Disability never slowed star athlete turned doctor

It was the customary familial question that comes after a birth, but it didn’t bring the answer quite expected.

“It was one of those deals where you call your parents and the first question always is, ‘Great! Do they have all their fingers and toes?’ ” Judy Hupe recalled. “And we had to say, ‘Well, no.’”

When Jessica — youngest of Judy and Dennis Hupe’s three children — was born in 1982, she was missing the fingers on her left hand.

“Those first days in the hospital, I was pretty devastated,” Judy said. “It took a while to come to grips with it. Thank God Dennis was like a rock.”

Maybe so, but inside he said he struggled, too: “Once the shock was over, you blame yourself.”

Judy said they soon put up a steadfast front but privately worried about even the simplest things like their daughter tying her shoes and other daily tasks:

“In our hearts we’d worry: ‘What is she going to do in life? How is she going to do it?’ “

Once again, the answers weren’t expected.

Jessica has done everything in life and done it quite well.

Proof of that comes again tonight when she is enshrined in the Eastern Michigan University Athletic Hall of Fame. Saturday she’ll be recognized at halftime of the school’s football game with Ohio University.

She was a four-year starter for the EMU women’s soccer team (2001-2004), won All-Mid-American Conference honors in three seasons, holds several of the school’s all-time scoring marks, also lettered in basketball, was named an Academic All-American and graduated cum laude.

Before that, at Waynesville High School, she was an all-state basketball and soccer player, now holds several of the school’s girls soccer records and graduated as the salutatorian of her class. She was inducted into the Waynesville Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Three years prior she carried the Olympic torch through Dayton as it made its way across America for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

It was an especially emotional time, coming just a few months after the 9/11 attacks on America. Much of Waynesville — including the high school — turned out for the torch run and the town’s mayor proclaimed it Jessica Hupe Day.

After college she taught high school biology and coached soccer for three years in Richmond, Virginia and then started medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s now Dr. Jessica Hupe, in her last year of residency.

She’s married, has two young children and her mom said she has become involved in an organization called Lucky Fins.

“It’s from the movie Nemo, he has a lucky fin,” Judy said. “It’s for kids who have hand deformities. She could be quite an example for them.”

She could pass on to those kids and her own children the lessons she learned from her parents. Basically they were: You get no slack, you offer no excuses, you have no regrets.

Those aren’t just lip-service dictums with her, they come with her own sports stories.



“We had moved up to Medina for a while and our son Stuart played on a soccer team there,” Dennis remembered. “They were short a player one day and the coach came up and said, ‘Do you mind if your daughter Jessica plays with us? The other coach said it’s OK if we take a girl.’ ”

Jessica remembers, too: “I was like 7 and my brother was three years older. I was half the size of those guys, but they gave me a jersey and I went and just destroyed some of those boys. I had always tagged along with my brother and his friends and they never took it easy on me. That’s how I played.”

“She scored a goal,” Dennis said.

When it came to softball, Jessica said she spent a lot of time in the front yard with her dad who taught her “to play like Jim Abbott,” the former major-league pitcher and Olympian out of the University of Michigan who had no right hand.

“I modeled the way I played after him absolutely,” she said. “I’d pitch with my right hand, put my glove on my right hand to field the ball, then slip the glove under my left forearm, take the ball with my right hand and throw to get the runner.”

Dennis remembered one high school game Jessica pitched and “every girl on the other team tried bunting on her. But it just didn’t work. She fielded the balls with her bare hand and threw them out.”

At Eastern Michigan, she was spotted in a pickup game in the gym and soon contacted by the coach of the basketball team, which needed players.

“It was a challenge,” she admitted. “Other teams constantly tried to force me to go left because they thought I wouldn’t be able to dribble with my hand.

“It certainly wasn’t perfect, but I could do a spin move and take a few dribble and keep going.

“Like everything in life I had to find a way. It made me step up my game and become a better player in the end.”

‘A tough bird’

When it came to the initial treatment of her left hand, finding a way was more problematic and painful.

“They were trying to elongate the bones where my fingers should have been so they transplanted (growth plates) from my toes,” Jess said. “They put screws through my fingers and my dad would have to tighten them about every night in hopes that it would force the bones to grow longer.”

“I don’t remember it, but I think my dad remembers how bad I’d scream sometimes.

“It kind of sounds like medieval torture now,” she laughed, “but I guess that used to be the standard.”

Although the procedures didn’t work that well, she said she did get some minimal use of her new thumb.

Through it all, Dennis said his daughter “really didn’t complain much at all. She was just a tough bird. She always has been.”

Judy remembered another side of Jess that showed in the hospital after one of her hand surgeries. While wearing a big, cone-like contraption on her hand, she made the rounds to the other rooms, sat with strangers who were sick or injured and tried to cheer them up.

“She’s always had an old soul,” Judy said. “She just understands.”

Jess said she owes a lot of her attitude to her parents who treated her just like her older brother and sister — Stuart and Ashley are twins — and guided her into sports where she was able to gain confidence.

She also credited her mom’s involvement in an organization called Everybody Counts, which introduced her to other people who had challenges:

“I met people with other physical differences and differences in cognitive skills and it made me realize everybody has something to deal with and a lot of people have it worse off than you.

“So you do your best to make the most of what you got.”

She did that at EMU, one of the few Division I schools that offered her an athletic scholarship.

“When I did well against a Division I school after that, it always felt good,” she said. “It was very validating for me. It made me realize I could hang with really anybody I played against.”

Born to medicine

Last year Judy said she was cleaning out boxes that contained stuff from her kids as they’d grown up:

“I ran across a picture Jess had drawn of herself when she was in third grade. On it was ‘When I grow up I want to be…’ and she had written ‘Doctor.’

“She had drawn herself wearing a doctor’s coat with a stethoscope around her neck. It was really cute.

“I framed it and gave it to her for Christmas. She can hang it up in her office.”

Now 35, Jess said she has wanted to be a doctor “since I was a young girl.

“It started when I was dealing with my hand. I had a number of surgeries and spent multiple summers in the hospital going through physical therapy and I saw how people were helped.

“That led me to want to be a doctor and, more specifically, rehab medicine and helping people recover and get as much function as they can after surgery.”

While playing Division I sports, she wasn’t able to take every class she needed for med school. While adding those, she taught and coached before entering the VCU School of Medicine.

She’ll graduate in May.

She laughed and said she thinks her dad is more excited about her Hall of Fame induction this weekend than the medical degree she’ll get next spring.

“She teases me about that,’ Dennis chuckled.

“As parents we couldn’t be any more proud of her becoming a doctor. But yes, I am very involved in sports and my wife and I are excited about her going into the Hall of Fame, too. Especially after all she had to go through and overcome. She never once allowed it to get in the way or used it as an excuse.

“Through all the years, she has never failed to show us she can reach the next level in anything.”

As it turned out, Jess Hupe was able to grab hold of life just fine.

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