Inside the house of hiccups

The tribulations and celebrity generated by a teen's noisy malady reverberate through her small home.

Published April 15, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- These days, Jennifer Mee sits at home, doing lessons made up by her parents and text-messaging friends.

The paperwork to get a tutor to come back to the hiccuping girl's house is an overwhelmingly slow process, and her spasms are too disruptive for her to attend Northeast High School.

It's been almost three months since the 15-year-old started hiccuping in her Jan. 23 science class and couldn't stop.

The family's exhaustive search for answers has included doctors and specialists, hypnotists and chiropractors and countless home remedies that poured in after Jennifer's plight was reported in media outlets throughout the world.

The family of eight - which includes Jennifer's four sisters, her mother, stepfather and uncle - lives in a two-bedroom home in St. Petersburg.

Jennifer's hiccups have changed them all, in ways big and small.

Because the five girls share a room, bedtime has come to mean anytime after Jennifer falls asleep.

Jennifer is the oldest. Ashley McCauley just turned 14. Kayla Robidoux is 12, followed by Destiny, 7, and Mackenzie, 5.

For them, the constant focus on Jennifer sometimes has been tough to take.

"I think they got kind of jealous," mom Rachel Robidoux said of her younger daughters.

They kept asking: "Why is Jennifer getting to do this and do that?" she said.

Center of attention

Her hiccups got Jennifer her first plane trip and her first visits to New York. NBC's Today show paid all of her expenses, putting her up in nice hotels, even treating her to a $65 French manicure.

She gave interviews to Inside Edition and the BBC. Photos of her ran in a European tabloid and a country music magazine. (Country star Keith Urban gave Jennifer a hug on Today.)

Tampa radio's MJ Morning Show put her on the air and even reworked the 1990 Soho hit Hippy Chick for her. They called it Hiccup Chick.

A German television crew has been in town in recent weeks to film a documentary about Jennifer.

At one point, the media frenzy was more disruptive than the hiccups themselves.

The phone rang. And rang. And rang.

"I wish this had an on/off switch," Jennifer's stepfather, Chris Robidoux, said at home one day, briefly burying the receiver under a sofa cushion.

"I couldn't imagine being Britney Spears or somebody else with all the paparazzi around," said Rachel, who tries to maintain some sort of balance.

She is the family's primary wage earner, a server at Denny's on 34th Street N, a restaurant that resembles Cheers without the alcohol. Regulars ask about Jennifer's hiccups all the time.

Rachel works the early shift so she can spend afternoons with the girls, often in city parks, and go to school events such as "Muffins with Mom" with the younger ones.

Her days off, Wednesdays and Thursdays, often are consumed with doctors' appointments for Jennifer.

Chris is on disability and doesn't leave home often. With eight people around, there is always vacuuming, laundry and dishes to do.

His brother Marc is between jobs and helps, too: shopping for groceries, washing the cars, mowing the lawn. He camps out on a couch.

At the height of the craziness, there was little time for anyone but Jennifer.

"Chris and I rarely connected," Rachel said. The family postponed his birthday celebration a week.

"Destiny and Mackenzie used to act up quite a bit," Rachel said. "They had a hard time understanding."

Even Kayla, who got to go to New York with her sister the second time around and met Today's Meredith Vieira, said life at home was boring with the intense focus on Jennifer.

More connections

Until the hiccups, the family chose not to have a home computer. Frankly, Chris and Rachel didn't want the girls to be online all day or have to worry about their safety on the Internet.

They finally relented and bought a laptop, borrowing money from Rachel's parents, so they could research Jennifer's condition.

They're now more knowledgeable medically, Rachel said. But they've also seen the downside of the World Wide Web.

Google Jennifer Mee and hiccups, and you'll get more than 13,900 hits. Not all of them are nice.

But family members do their best to ignore derogatory comments about Jennifer and speculation that they have profited financially from her plight.

NBC did compensate Rachel the equivalent of a few days' pay for the time accompanying Jennifer to New York, but that was about it.

"I still get up every morning at 5:15 and go to work," she said.

The family would like to rent a bigger place, but the budget doesn't stretch that far right now. Medical bills are paid through a public-assistance program.

And through it all, there is some normality.

Chris and Rachel got Jennifer a cell phone, although pranks and some misbehavior have cost her privileges from time to time.

She is almost 16, and the hiccups haven't stopped her from testing her independence.

When she does have possession of the phone, her thumbs are in constant motion as she punches in text messages to friends.

She went back to school last month, but only for a day: The hiccups started up again. She had another break from them two weeks ago, but it didn't last long.

Through home tutors and Internet offerings, she hopes to catch up with her studies in time to resume classes in the fall.

Rachel worries that Jennifer won't graduate on time, given the pain of her condition and the disruption of her studies.

Jennifer dismisses her fears. She will graduate on schedule, she said.

She wants to go to beauty school, maybe even study acupuncture after experiencing the practice firsthand in a failed attempt to cure her hiccups.

Medical tests

She has had further medical tests, including an endoscopy that examined her throat and esophagus for abnormalities. She has still another prescription, for a drug that blocks stomach-acid production. A St. Petersburg chiropractor treats her at no charge.

The family communicates with several other people who have had hiccups longer than Jennifer. Rachel thinks an Internet support group might be a good idea.

When Jennifer isn't studying or doing chores during the day, she said, she sleeps or watches TV. "After school, I hang out with my friends."

The whole family spent a day during spring break at Busch Gardens, where Jennifer took her first roller-coaster ride.

"The lady said it didn't go fast," she said, smiling. "She lied to me."

The trip was scary, but apparently not terrifying enough to stop the hiccups.