Former students will hold benefit recital for cherished Summit County dance instructor stricken by cancer, stroke
It started as a tiny speck on Jennifer Voxakis’ left eyelid.
Surgeons removed the speck. Then in subsequent surgeries they took off the entire eyelid, mostly without general anesthesia.
The cancer just got worse. During the third surgery this past October, which lasted 17 hours, Jennifer lost her left eye and half of her face to a particularly aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, a skin cancer that raged across her face like wildfire.
And then, mere hours after the last gruesome surgery, Jennifer suffered a major stroke.
Doctors had told her husband, Michael Voxakis, that half her brain was probably dead. That it was never coming back. That she may never dance, talk, or even breathe again.
The three-year nightmare would have probably broken most people, and most couples. But Jennifer and Michael Voxakis are still here, and they’re still fighting. They are also receiving an outpouring of support from former students, friends and neighbors, who have organized a benefit recital for Saturday, Jan. 13, to help the couple cope with the extraordinary medical bills they have racked up.
Before her hellacious ordeal, Jennifer was a dance instructor for 36 years, 26 of them in Summit County at schools in Dillon, Frisco, and lately at the Silverthorne Recreation Center.
She has taught dance to hundreds of pupils in Summit, ranging in age from 2 to “the grey haired.” An entire generation knows “Miss Jennifer” to be the dance teacher who gave them all the enthusiasm and encouragement they needed every time they tapped on her studio floor.
Jennifer also taught swim aerobics, Pilates, junior ski school, and litany of other fitness and life-related activities to Summit residents over the past few decades. She is an avid snow and water skier, and she and Michael share a deep love of live music, going to concerts whenever they can.
Jennifer’s close friends of over 20 years, Bill and Sherry Linfield, said she is “the most fit person they’ve ever known,” and that her health, fitness and ruggedness made her “the epitome of Summit County.”
Michael remembers how he and Jennifer had asked Phil and Steve Mahre, the legendary twin Olympian skiers, for some pointers on her skiing form when they visited Summit back in 1992. They saw her shred the slopes and told him, “There’s nothing we can teach her that she doesn’t already know.”
So when Michael was told of the possibility that Jennifer, the superstar and burning light in his life, might pass on, it almost broke him. But he never stopped hoping, knowing Jennifer as a fighter who above anyone else could get through this ordeal.
His faith was well founded.
Subsequent brain scans showed that the anticipated swelling, which would have forced surgeons to cut open her skull to take pressure off Jennifer’s brain, did not materialize. When her trachea tube was taken out, she not only started breathing on her own, she spoke.
Jennifer did lose movement on her right side, but the damage was much less severe than expected. New brain pathways may form, and eventually she may regain movement in her right arm and leg.
After weeks in intensive care, and more weeks of physical rehabilitation, Jennifer can walk with assistance. A skin graft from her thigh has taken the place of the left half of her face, but her good eye still glints with a steely determination. Sherry Linfield, who was one of Jennifer’s first dance students 26 years ago, recalled how one of the first things Jennifer said to her during a visit was how she wanted to help other people get through what she was going through.
“That’s just how she is,” Sherry said. “She is always trying to help and teach people.”
And then against all odds, Jennifer came back home to the couple’s condo in Wildernest last Saturday. She goes through physical and occupational therapy every day, while Michael, a project engineer with CDOT, cares for her whenever he’s not rushed off to work or having to get supplies. He tests her memory from time to time with a smattering of random questions, and for the most part she passes. Seeing her home has helped him start to heal as well.
Looking at her over their dining room table, Michael was in awe of how hard she’s battled just to sit across from him, eating dinner on her own.
“This girl’s been unbelievable man,” he said as his voice cracked, and before the tears rolled. “She’s never wavered a bit. She’s like the freaking Terminator.”
Jennifer saw the toll her personal battle has taken on Michael as well.
“He’s a mess,” she said. “He’s not himself at all. In the 25 years we were together before this, I’ve never seen him cry. With this whole thing, he’s been crying on a daily basis.”
“So at least I got him to cry,” she then said with a laugh.
To help the Voxakis continue the road to recovery, many of the hundreds of people whose lives they’ve touched have set up a benefit fundraiser at the Silverthorne Pavilion on Jan. 13 with doors opening at 5 pm. The event will include a dance recital performed by many of Jennifer’s young and old students, including her old friend Sherry Linfield. There is a $10 suggested donation, and there will also be a silent auction featuring many items donated by her friends and local businesses, as well as refreshments and a cash bar.
The Voxakis’s plan to attend, and want to thank everyone supporting them during this very trying period. Jennifer is certainly not out of the woods, with a long and hard road to recovery. Aside from her current injuries, she must also live with the specter of cancer returning. But she said she is determined to keep fighting, and she has goals.
“I want to get walking again,” she said. “Maybe try to teach again. Raise awareness for skin cancer.”
And with that same razor sharp determination in her eye, she declared: “I will get better. It’s just a matter of when.”
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