Tori Hart Radiates Natural Beauty as Make-A-Wish Model Material

For the most part, Victoria “Tori” Hart is your average teenager. The 15-year-old from Center Ridge is interested in makeup, clothes, social media, boys and pop culture. She wants to learn to drive, she has a pet horse named Diamond, she takes selfies and she loves basketball. For the uninitiated or far-removed from teen culture, Google “selfies.”

There’s just one thing separating Tori from other girls her age, and it’s a pretty big thing: cancer. But take it from us and anyone else who’s fortunate enough to know Tori, you can’t get this girl down. She’s not interested in your pity, and she’s no-nonsense about life and her diagnosis. “We treat her like an adult,” says her mother Sherry Hart. “She’s a smart girl, and we have always been honest with her.”

In one breath, the teenage beauty can chat about Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake and Demi Lovato, and in the next, she’ll tell you all about her 11 brain tumors and how she’s defying the odds. The juxtaposition is breathtaking, like a swift kick in the gut. But it’s real. “They said I wouldn’t be here in a year after my brain surgery at MD Anderson, but it’s been almost three years,” says Tori defiantly, “and I’m still here.”

The Journey Begins

It all started when Tori was 8 years old. She came home from school with a lump on her neck. Doctors first thought it was an infection, then Graves Disease — an autoimmune disorder that sometimes causes the thyroid to swell. But after feeling the lump, doctors at Arkansas Children’s Hospital ordered a biopsy and quickly discovered Tori had papillary/follicular carcinoma in her thyroid.

In 2006, Tori had her thyroid removed, along with 22 lymph nodes, 19 of which were cancerous. Following surgery, Tori went through several I131 radiation treatments — a procedure which involves a radioactive iodine pill that is administered orally. Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that absorb iodine, so when the radioactive iodine enters the bloodstream, it is supposed to destroy any remaining thyroid cells.

Over the next four years, more surgeries followed to remove additional lymph nodes as well as the tonsils and adenoids. Then in June 2011, Tori started having severe headaches. An MRI revealed almost a dozen brain tumors. Tori was referred to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she underwent another surgery to remove one of the tumors. The medical team wanted to make sure they knew what they were dealing with — that it was the thyroid cancer that had spread and not something else entirely.

The pathology report indicated that it was in fact thyroid cancer that had spread to Tori’s brain. “The doctors said they’d never seen anything like it. They told me Tori probably wouldn’t make it a year,” recalls Sherry. “And I told them, ‘Well, you haven’t dealt with my daughter.’”

Three days after surgery, Tori came home and began an aggressive brain radiation program at Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute (CARTI). She and Sherry drove to Little Rock every day for five-and-half weeks for treatment, which Sherry says slowed the growth of the tumors, but didn’t destroy them.

One tumor causes numbness in Tori’s legs, another blurred vision in one eye. Although the next step in her treatment plan is uncertain, one thing is for sure: Tori’s one tough girl who’s not going to let anything slow her down.

Sherry has homeschooled Tori since she was in the fifth grade and says that throughout it all, she’s has stayed up-to-date with her schoolwork. “She’s right up there with them,” Sherry says of Tori’s former 10th-grade classmates at Nemo Vista High School.

And while she’s no longer enrolled in Nemo Vista, Tori remains a steadfast fan of the school’s basketball program, attending every game the senior girls play. “She’s there to support them regardless,” says Sherry. “They know if we’re not there, she’s sick.”

Making a Wish

Make-A-Wish first reached out to the Harts when they were at MD Anderson, and local representatives followed up again when the Harts returned to Arkansas.

According to Miranda Harbor — director of community outreach for Make-A-Wish Mid-South, which covers Arkansas, West Tennessee and North Mississippi — Make-A-Wish “grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.” But Harbor points out that this doesn’t mean the children Make-A-Wish serves are terminally ill. “[They] have medical conditions that place their lives in jeopardy — many of them will beat or live with their illness and have long lives.”

Founded in 1986, Make-A-Wish Mid-South has granted almost 5,000 wishes since its inception. Last year alone, the locally funded organization granted 239 wishes to children in its service area.

“We may receive 400-500 referrals each year,” says Harbor, but not all of them qualify. Wish kids must have a life-threatening medical condition and be deemed medically eligible by a physician. They must also be between the ages of two-and-a-half and 18 at the time of referral and never have received a wish from another wish-granting organization.

After the child is deemed medically eligible to receive his or her wish, “two Make-A-Wish volunteers visit the wish family and get to ask the awesome question: ‘If you could wish for anything in the world, what would it be?’” Harbor says.

A fashion, makeup and magazine enthusiast, Tori’s wish was simply to be a model for a day. That’s where we came in.

Local Make-A-Wish Mid-South Arkansas Development Director Carol Isom and Wish Coordinator Kathryn Flippin reached out to us with Tori’s wish months ago, and we were all too delighted to help make it come true. With the help of photographer Jason Masters; hair and makeup professional Angela Alexander; Erin Hohnbaum of E.Leigh’s and Randy Bricker of Warren’s Shoes, the Soirée team gave Tori the true model experience.

And believe us, transforming Tori into a model couldn’t have been easier. She was any creative team’s dream-come-true — a balance of beauty, grace and personality. She was a natural in front of the camera, a true professional and a delight to work with.

We may have been the ones granting the wish, but our entire team is grateful to Tori, her family and Make-A-Wish for this experience. Not only did we get a pop culture education (Tori taught us about Lucy Hale, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, the aforementioned Justin Bieber and more), we met a girl who is more of an inspiration to us than she can even imagine. She is in our hearts and has forever changed our lives.

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