A town embraces stricken teen

Involvement: An effort by a local high school to help a sick classmate becomes a community cause.

May 30, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Greg Hladky is fighting a devastating illness, knowing that his school, church and the South Carroll community are battling right along with him.

The 16-year-old South Carroll High School junior was diagnosed with acute myelogenic leukemia in December 1997. Aggressive chemotherapy did not stop the disease and he soon needed a transplant to survive. His school organized a bone marrow drive and several fund-raisers.

"Greg had to have a transplant to live, and we wanted to help," said senior Vicky Albright. "It became the biggest activity I have ever seen in this school. Group after group fell into this. He was our cause."

They pulled their families and the rest of the Sykesville community into the cause.

"We didn't want this to stay here in school," said Albright. "It is our responsibility to get it outside these walls."

The decision to help him came easily. The tall, quiet boy who often played piano for school functions and umpired Little League games reminded parents of their own children, said Karen Wright, crisis counselor at South Carroll.

"He is just a typical kid; you can see your own kid in him and you wanted to help," she said.

School guidance counselor Pam Boan said, "All we had to say was `Fund-raiser for Greg Hladky' and businesses donated."

Proceeds from the school play, the spring dance and a T-shirt sale all went to the Greg Hladky fund.

The Sykesville recreation leagues held a Day in the Park benefit; St. Stephen's Reformed Episcopal Church raffled off baskets and sold candy, raising more than $7,500 for the Hladkys, who are members of the church. The church's youth group is recording songs and making an audio message.

"We want him to hear our voices and to tell him we are saving a spot in the choir for him," said Jen Frey, youth group director.

Shortly before the May 1 drive, Greg's doctors found a bone marrow match. He underwent a transplant May 7 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But the drive went on at the family's request to help the thousands of others awaiting transplants.

"Even after we found a match for Greg, he wanted to continue the drive," said father George Hladky. "He knows so many kids who have no help."

More than 150 bone marrow donors were tested at the school; their names have been added to a national register.

Like the church group's tape, most support goes beyond the financial. Greg's ordeal has galvanized the community, and nowhere is this more evident than in the halls of his school.

"I can't walk down the hall without somebody handing me a flier about a fund-raiser or asking me what to do for Greg," said Wright. "This has had such a positive effect. Everybody is talking about doing something for him."

In a student body of almost 1,600, few knew Greg personally.

"People would say they didn't know him, but they wanted to help him," said Albright. "He is just a kid at our school, someone who needs our help."

There are collages, videotapes of school events, letter chains and daily e-mails to Greg, who will remain hospitalized at Hopkins for several months.

As Greg copes with the effects of the transplant, "more than anything else, knowing so many people care is a great comfort to him," said his father.

Greg's illness has also raised awareness of leukemia and the need for organ and tissue donors. Students have "gotten educated and involved, and they have learned," said Boan.

"It was a bummer that most of us were not old enough to be donors," said senior Ashly Ebeling. Donors must be age 18 or older. His classmate's ordeal has shown junior Peter Hamlington that illness can strike anyone.

"We need to let him know he is not alone, and we are all still thinking about him and trying to help wherever possible," said Hamlington.

All this spring, students have offered help at the Hladkys' home.

"I have had calls from kids I don't even know offering to do the yard or to cook a meal," said George Hladky. "Just the fact that they offer is comforting. It gives you hope that most kids out there are good and caring."

South Carroll teacher Karen Anderson knows well how the offers of help and expressions of concern can aid Greg's recovery. Anderson, the mother of three teen-age sons, survived leukemia as a teen-ager. She also spent months in a hospital room, grateful for cards, visits and phone calls.

"I remember what it was like, and I remember what kept me going," she said. "This is all part of what it will take to get him back here to us."

The Student Government Association took the lead, but nearly all the students helped, she said.

"Kids who don't normally get involved even got their families involved," said Anderson. "I think this really alerted them that they have it pretty good. How these kids came together is truly overwhelming.

"Kids this age need a cause, and they found it in Greg," she said. "We just had no idea how it would grow."

Greg's illness was the catalyst that "allowed kids to help one another and feel needed," Boan said.

Greg faces a lengthy recovery, but "knowing so many people care is a great deal of help to him," said George Hladky. "He believes in the power of prayer, and he believes in the power of people."

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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