Dukes Family Weathers Life’s Ups and Down
The Dukes’ family story began at the University of Mississippi. Ashley Dukes, originally from Brentwood, Tennessee, made her way to Mississippi to study English and art at Ole Miss, which is where she met her now husband Marcus.
They met through mutual friends, and their first date was at an Ole Miss football game.
“We were pretty sure that we had met our match within a couple of months, if not before that,” she said.
The couple married shortly after graduating from college, and have been married for nearly 22 years. After they were married, the couple moved to Atlanta for a few years while Marcus attended graduate school at Emory University.
They returned from Atlanta around 12 years ago, and have made the Jackson metro their home ever since. Marcus works as a chemical engineer, and Ashley is a consultant for a beauty brand.
“We just felt like the Jackson area was home,” she said.
Now, they make their home in Ridgeland where they attend church at First Ridgeland Church with their three children: eight-year-old twins, Charlotte and Eliza Jane, and six-year-old Evie.
If you were to ask Ashley to describe her family’s dynamic, she would tell you that they are a “tight-knit crew.”
“Marcus and I tried for five years to have a baby,” Ashley said. “We went through all the fertility treatments and had lots of help, and after five years, we were pregnant with the twins.”
A year after Charlotte and Eliza Jane were born, the couple got some big news.
“Almost a year after they were born, I found out I was pregnant with Evie, naturally. We were thrilled. We couldn’t believe it and we were really excited,” Ashley said.
The girls are approximately 20 months apart, which Ashley said could be challenging at times.
“It was like having three babies at once,” she said. “It was crazy there for a little bit. Watching the three of them grow up together, they all share the same interests, but they have their own things as well.”
“They have built-in best friends at home,” she added. “They’re a tight-knit little crew.”
Then, in 2018, the family received news they had not been prepared for. Charlotte was sick.
“We never had any indication that she wasn’t well,” Ashley said. “In 2018, in the fall, I saw some spots on her, like a bruise or a rash.”
Over the course of three days, they noticed the spots were in several places. So, Ashley sent photos to their pediatrician, who requested she bring Charlotte in the next morning. By Friday, Charlotte was admitted into the hospital.
“Everything just went from there,” she said. “By Monday, she was having a bone marrow biopsy. On Wednesday, we found out that she had very severe aplastic anemia, which was something we had never heard of.”
Her bone marrow was completely failing. Two weeks later, they got an appointment at St. Jude, where her diagnosis was confirmed.
“They confirmed that it was severe aplastic anemia and that she needed a bone marrow transplant right away,” Ashley said. “We were back at St. Jude at the end of September for radiation and chemo then her transplant then more chemo.”
It wasn’t until February 2019 that they were able to return home. However, during the course of their time at St. Jude, the Dukes family grew.
In fact, they were fortunate enough to meet this new member of the family over spring break before the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from traveling. Also, since Charlotte is immune compromised, she has had to take extra precautions during this time.
“We got to meet her donor before the coronavirus hit,” Ashley said. “We are so thankful for this person and very grateful that we got to meet her and tell her thank you in person. She saved Charlotte’s life. It was a true miracle how it all unfolded and fit together perfectly.”
The timing was perfect, especially since there are many factors to consider: the donor’s availability and Charlotte’s immediate need, in addition to schedules to work around and various other things. Ashley said they were extremely fortunate for it to have worked out the way it did.
“Charlotte couldn’t have waited another day,” Ashley said.
They were able to meet Charlotte’s donor through St. Jude and the bone marrow registry, according to Ashley.
“One year after the transplant is completed, if both parties agree to it, you can exchange personal information,” Ashley said. “The only thing we knew before the year mark was that it was a woman in America. That’s all we knew. But we were able to get her contact information and we were able to start directly communicating with her from there.”
For spring break, the family made their way to North Carolina to meet her.
“It was very emotional,” Ashley said. “To meet somebody who saved your child’s life is pretty amazing. Charlotte does understand it, and she talks like the donor’s baby is her other sister because they share blood. It’s been a neat thing to watch, not only watching Charlotte understand it all but also for her sisters.”
Ashley said some of the things they have been through as a family almost prepared them for the coronavirus, in a way.
“When she was going through the transplant, Charlotte couldn’t be exposed to others for around 100 days, even after that, she couldn’t go to places like the grocery store or movie theater or in a swimming pool,” Ashley said.
Charlotte even had to wear N95 masks every time they left the house.
“It was a challenge to take her even to the doctor, to pick up her sisters from school,” Ashley said. “In a way, we were prepared for this.”
After everything they’ve been through, the family continues to rely on each other and enjoy time together. As a family, they love to take trips, especially to zoos.
While some of their favorite things to do were impossible for a while, such as going to restaurants to share a meal together or enjoying a movie at a theater, they got creative with their activities.
Many of their days are spent outside and going on bike rides together. Some days Ashley will put together nature scavenger hunts for the girls.
In the evenings, they have home movie nights with a floor picnic or play board games. Some evenings Marcus and Ashley get a special treat when the girls decide to put on a show.
“The girls love to make up plays and make tickets,” Ashley said. “They make a ticket booth and have us come watch their play, singing competition or ballet.”
In December, the couple ran the St. Jude 5K in Memphis, as part of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon weekend to raise money for the hospital.
“We would do absolutely anything for St. Jude. I will forever, for the rest of my life, give back to them however I can,” Ashley said.