Community focuses on ailing teen

Teamwork: South Carroll High School classmates, neighbors and friends find ways to help Gregory Hladky, 16, in his battle with leukemia.

April 11, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Like most high schools, South Carroll bolsters its spring sports stars in baseball, lacrosse, tennis and track with a pep rally. This year, though, most of the hoopla has been to cheer on an academic honor student who is battling for his life.

Gregory Hladky, a pianist accomplished enough to play at school functions, could not attend a rally in his honor last week, one of many events the community has staged in recent months to help the 16-year-old Sykesville junior in his fight against acute myelogenous leukemia.

"I don't have enough white cells to attend a pep rally with all those kids," said Greg, a tall, lean youth with an infectious smile who was undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the day of the pep rally.

In the 18 months since he was diagnosed, Greg has become conversant with medical terminology, familiar with procedures and aware of his prognosis: He needs a bone marrow transplant to survive.

His school has organized a bone marrow drive May 1, hoping to find donors to fight the disease that strikes millions of children annually. The Johns Hopkins Hemapheresis Center will administer a simple test at the school to determine donor eligibility and gather names for a national registry.

"The chance is about one in 20,000 of finding a match," said Nancy Hladky, Greg's mother. "But it is also to let people know. Look how many people in South Carroll now know.

Education is vital if the number of donors is to increase, she said.

"People don't realize how simple a procedure this is," she said. "You can save somebody's life while you are still alive. Most donors are out of the hospital the next day."

Greg's search may be at an end, with a suitable match found recently in England.

"The doctors are all fighting about who gets to go to England to get the bone marrow," said Greg.

During his hospital stays, he has met many other children who have not been so fortunate.

"Our whole purpose is to raise awareness, not just to get our son a donor," said George Hladky. "We want to help the many children with no donor, especially minority children."

Most of the rally participants wore T-shirts that said, "South Carroll Fights for Life" and "Be a Life-Saver" in the school's black and gold colors. Selling shirts is one of many fund-raising efforts that has spawned intense competition among classes. Students have pledged proceeds from the spring play and dance. The school baseball team helped put together Greg Hladky Day at the local recreation fields where Greg once played Little League and later worked as an umpire for younger children's games.

The team will work the concession stands and sell raffle tickets.

"I don't know Greg, but I know this is a good thing to do," said Jason Shipley, who turns 18 this month and becomes eligible to be a donor. "I think I will be a donor, too."

Donors must be healthy and at least 18 years old, a requirement that eliminates most high school students, but the experience is teaching them.

"A lot of the kids are upset that they can't donate," said Pam Boan, guidance counselor. "They are starting to learn about this disease and the need for donors. We are promoting the nationwide need. The students are asking questions, so we know we are raising awareness."

About 40 potential donors have registered for the drive, but organizers are hoping many more will come from among parents and friends throughout the school area.

"Greg is a well-known role model," said Boan. "This drive is for him, for the person he is. But we are not donating just for Greg. Every donor name goes into a registry. Every person registered could one day get a call that will save another life."

A $5,000 donation from the Carroll County Children's Fund will pay for testing 100 people. Every $50 raised in the next few weeks will pay for one more test.

"All this makes you feel really good about yourself," said Greg. "All these people who don't even know me, but they are helping me."

It seems to the Hladkys that an entire community has joined them in the battle.

Churches and local organizations have fund-raising efforts in the works. Both parents work at the Social Security Agency in Woodlawn. Co-workers have organized a donor drive there, and donated a year of their personal leave to allow Nancy paid time off to care for her son.

"Even the Orioles have been tremendous," said Nancy, showing off Greg's bedroom walls lined with autographed photos of his favorite team.

Nearly every day the mail brings get-well wishes and prayers. Greg has made a little shrine in his bedroom of prayer cards, angels and candles. Many have come from nursing homes where Greg often played the piano for residents. He also plays for his church and the school.

A little coaxing will get him to the family piano. He prefers playing classical music, but for listening, it's alternative rock.

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