After Laura-Jean Schnupp was diagnosed with cancer in January 2020, she got a second surprise. Doctors couldn’t identify where the disease had begun. Soon, she and her mother, Jeanne Santomauro Schnupp, began a procession of trips to various facilities for Laura-Jean’s chemotherapy, although at times she went alone because of COVID-19 restrictions.
During the hours she spent waiting for and receiving treatment, LJ, as she was called, would often draw, using art to lift her and others’ spirits, as she shared her artwork with fellow patients and caregivers.
One day, as LJ and her mom arrived in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Commack parking lot, they watched a woman taking her child in for treatment.
"The two of us saw a toddler in a stroller with no hair on her head," Santomauro Schnupp said. "We couldn’t imagine somebody that little going through it … We thought something as simple as a coloring book could help, something they could play with that was easy to have with them."
LJ died of cancer on Feb. 12, 2021, at the age of 28, leaving behind a fiance, family, friends, artwork and memories — including of the day in the parking lot — that would inspire her mother to memorialize LJ with a project aimed at comforting cancer patients.
In May 2021, Santomauro Schnupp began creating Splash of Color Activity Kit by Ellejay S Designs ("Ellejay S" for how LJ signed her artwork, says her mother) to be given to chemotherapy patients on Long Island. The first kits were distributed in October at Stony Brook Cancer Center.
The kits incorporate LJ’s artwork — including her signature butterflies — in a calendar and treatment tracker, a coloring book, puzzle books, markers and rocks to be decorated — all in a case that can double as a lap desk.
She and LJ had talked about creating a calendar with LJ’s artwork, but there was no time to do it, Santomauro Schnupp explains.
"Her wish was for us to continue this mission of sending positivity and love to everyone, especially those having to deal with the rigors of chemo, radiation and other therapy treatments," Santomauro Schnupp said. "I want to carry out her dreams to help long-term care patients get through their treatments in a more positive way."
"It provides a distraction to patients," said Debbora Hettler, 55, a nurse who has distributed the kits at New York Cancer & Blood Specialists in Setauket and Port Jefferson Station. "Especially during COVID, they’re alone a lot because they can’t have someone at the bedside."
An artistic life
LJ was due to be born on Christmas in 1992 but arrived early, on Dec. 12. Her parents took her home to Holtsville, where she had two older brothers, Michael, now 35, and Matt, now 33.
"She was always interested in art, even as a child," said her mother, a decorative artist and muralist who owns her own studio, Jeannie’s Designs. "Whenever I had design or color questions, I would summon LJ into my studio to brainstorm with me."
They also painted together "for relaxation" and experimented with new techniques.
"She was an artist. It came out in her work, clothes, makeup, hair, food," her mother added. "Everything was an artistic endeavor."
LJ enrolled at Suffolk County Community College and then took psychology and art classes at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue where she graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy. From her senior year of high school through college, she had worked alongside her mother creating holiday store window displays.
After college, she worked as a recreational therapist at Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Melville and Stony Brook University Hospital’s mental health unit.
"I was mesmerized by how passionate she was about her work and how stunning she was," said her fiance, Brandon Goedtel, 25, who lives in Islip and works as a transporter at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore.
They met in 2018 and began dating, going to the beach and ballgames. "I finally asked her to be my girlfriend at the Mets game at Citi Field while we were on the escalator on the way to our chairs, because I was so nervous and couldn’t wait," Goedtel said about the game in June 2018.
But in December 2019, LJ went to the emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital, where she worked as a recreational therapist, with chest pains. It was then that doctors found a tumor between her lung and heart that was diagnosed a month later as carcinoma of unknown primary, a rare cancer. Chemotherapy worked, shrinking the tumor, but more cancer was found on LJ’s liver, ruling out surgery, her mother says.
Caitlyn Geer, 29, became her principal nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Commack.
"We both worked at Stony Brook at the same time," Geer said, explaining that the two felt a bond, believing they’d seen each other there before LJ’s treatment began.
During treatment, LJ showed Geer drawings on her cellphone and notepads. "Her thing was a butterfly," said Geer, whose family held a fundraiser for LJ. "I look at a butterfly, and I think of her."
Family and friends say LJ remained mostly upbeat during cancer treatments in 2020.
"When she lost her hair, she shared those posts [on social media]," said LJ’s father, Michael, a longtime Verizon employee. "She wanted to let everybody know you can get through this. She had a great support system with us and her friends."
Still, the cancer was aggressive. "The doctors told her that her cancer was spreading quickly, and they believed she had about six months to live," said Goedtel.
Life cut short
LJ celebrated her 28th birthday on Dec. 12, 2020, as 100 friends and family paraded past their home in vehicles.
"She had a great day. I didn’t know it was to be her last birthday," her mother continued. "I guess I was in denial and couldn’t imagine my life without her in it."
Her father believed LJ would survive the cancer. "She was a fighter," he said. "We never even imagined she wasn’t going to beat it."
On what would be her last Christmas, LJ and her family painted color-by-number canvases in the family’s Holtsville home. "The whole dining room was set up with table easels and paintings," her mother said. "It was fantastic. She loved it."
Believing they had time to marry, Goedtel proposed to LJ on Jan. 30, 2021, at West Meadow Beach in Setauket; the wedding was planned for March. "LJ was my soul mate," he said. "I was simply head-over-heels madly in love with her."
LJ and her mother went to David’s Bridal in Lake Grove for a wedding dress. "She did get to do ‘yes to the dress,’ " her mother said.
The fitting, however, would be canceled as the cancer spread. She was scheduled for a biopsy on Feb. 5, but instead was admitted to the intensive care unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
"We all gathered with Laura-Jean. They even allowed her labradoodle, Ellie, to be with her," her mother said of LJ’s death a week later in hospice.
At the space they had reserved for the wedding, family and friends gathered on Feb. 27 at Sunken Meadow State Park for a memorial for LJ that was held in a building with large windows providing a beautiful view of the ocean.
"Right before sunset, the sun broke through," her mother said.
They painted messages on rocks, including some now in the family’s yard near a statue of an angel and a Japanese maple friends donated.
Family and friends gathered again at sunset in October at Smith Point County Park in Shirley to release illuminated biodegradable paper lanterns with such messages as, "You will always be in our hearts."
Geer, who says she lost a friend and a patient, keeps a letter on her refrigerator in which LJ calls her an "earth angel." Said Geer, "She’s my angel in heaven, and I’m her angel on earth."
Her mother says she continues to use art and "beauty" to bond with LJ as she puts together Splash of Color Kits, which she has manufactured by Viking Printing in Lindenhurst. "I do all the assembling in my dining room at home," she said. "I have boxes all over with supplies."
With the kits having been distributed to patients Stony Brook Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Commack, Mather Hospital and New York Cancer & Blood Specialists, Santomauro Schnupp continues to fundraise, having collected about $10,000 through a GoFundMe. In September, she incorporated Ellejay S Designs as a nonprofit in New York State; nonprofit status is pending with the Internal Revenue Service.
And, she says, she’s also in talks to distribute kits in partnership with the New York Cancer Foundation in Port Jefferson Station.
"I’m on a mission to do this kit," she said.
To contribute to Splash of Color Activity Kit by Ellejay S Designs, visit https://gofund.me/1ecc6fdf.