Oncologist Tamara Hopkins
Oncologist Tamara Hopkins meets with her patient Nancy Derboven.
By Kathy Gangwisch
Most physicians probably didn’t start out as a wild child who dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, tended bar, and took a while to earn a general education degree.
Tamara Hopkins isn’t most doctors, though. She did all of the above, and now she’s a highly respected oncologist and hematologist in Mid-Missouri. Most physicians don’t hold rummage sales and bra auctions to benefit patients, but Tamara Hopkins does.
Born in Belleville, Illinois, and mostly reared in Jefferson City, Tamara attended Jefferson City High School before cutting out and living on her own at age sixteen.
She earned her GED at eighteen. By her early twenties, she decided to take a different path and enrolled in the nursing program at Lincoln University. To pay her way through school, Tamara tended bar at the American Legion Post No. 5. There, club members helped her out with a scholarship, which she now helps sponsor.
After graduation, she worked as a nurse at hospitals in Jefferson City and Columbia and found herself drawn to cancer patients. She figured that was her calling, so she applied to the University of Missouri School of Medicine. At the time, there were no female oncologists in central Missouri, so she racked up a first in that area.
Tamara paid her way through medical school by working weekends as a nurse.
“You could put in twenty-four hours at the hospitals, and they’d pay you for thirty-six—a really good deal,” she says.
After her residency and a fellowship in oncology, Tamara earned board certification in four specialties: internal medicine, family practice, oncology, and hematology. She began practice as a cancer specialist in 2006.
Four years later, she built her own building in Jefferson City where she offers chemotherapy and sees on average seventy patients per week.
“We treat patients like family here, good and bad,” Tamara says. “If they aren’t following the protocol and taking care of themselves, I’ll yell at them, and they aren’t afraid to yell back. They know I mean business. At the same time, they know I care for them deeply.”
Tamara Hopkins Rummage Sale
Tamara organizes handbags at her semiannual rummage sale to raise money for her patient fund.
When some have trouble affording pricey cancer drugs, Tamara finds ways to lend a hand. She doesn’t broadcast the fact that she’s been known to personally call pharmacists to find out how much medications cost and put up some of her own money to cover costs.
Patient advocate funds also help with the high costs of medications. In fact, Tamara hosts rummage sales at her building to help these funds.
“We raise about a couple thousand dollars at each one,” she says.
What doesn’t sell ends up in the doctor’s office suite that’s a cornucopia of unique old country things. One example is a stuffed albino raccoon, which the staff now dresses up for different holidays. Her five exam rooms are appointed with countryside antiques. In spare time, Tamara runs around central Missouri in her pickup truck buying interesting pieces at estate sales and auctions to place in the twice yearly rummage events.
“I especially love barn sales,” she says. “You can find some really neat stuff.”
Tamara isn’t the only who puts things up for sale. Other patients and her seventeen-member staff donate as well.
Tamara also organizes bra auctions to raise money for a local breast cancer charity. Staff and patients create elaborately adorned bras, then they’re put on display at places around town where people can bid on them.
Tamara’s caring goes beyond the rummage sales and typical patient care, too. She will hand out her cell phone number to patients and tell them to call her any time.
“I had a pretty important medical need one evening,” says Nancy Derboven, a patient from Rich Fountain. “I debated about calling during off hours, then went ahead. When Dr. Hopkins answered, I told her it sounded like she was washing dishes. She was, but she stopped and answered my question and insisted I wasn’t bothering her.”
Tamara Hopkins Clinic
Dog trainer Ginger Stratman and therapy dog Hope meet with patient Tammy Luikart.
Tamara’s office complex is not a gloomy place. Patients have decorated the ceiling tiles with uplifting messages, and she and her staff have fun with the patients.
“We’ve been known to have water fights with syringes on occasion,” she says.
Once, a chemo patient was marking his birthday when a group of staffers came out from a back room wearing layers of Mardi Gras beads. They danced by the patient and hung every necklace on him. He wore them all day and got a kick out of it.
Fun is not all that makes Tamara and her staff stand out. She’s also tenacious.
“She’s a fighter who simply will not give up,” says Chris Shelton, a patient from Jefferson City.
Valerie Bante, one of the nurses on staff, first worked with Tamara when they were both nurses at Boone Hospital in Columbia, and she also has many stories to tell that show Tamara’s determined, hopeful personality.
“In a profession that many think would be depressing, we always try to remember that more people do better in cancer treatment than not,” Tamara says.
The next rummage sale will take place at Tamara’s office complex at 1704 Christy Drive in Jefferson City on June 10 from 9 am to 3 pm. For more information and event updates, find Tamara Hopkins MD LLC on Facebook.