GAINESVILLE — Drake Hollander was a fun-loving, sports-obsessed sixth-grader at North Hall Middle School. But on Oct. 12, he became something else: a cancer patient.
Drake’s parents, Jay and Becky Hollander, were stunned last month when what seemed to be a stubborn case of bronchitis turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But schools and churches throughout North Hall have rallied around Drake’s family, offering prayers and support as he faces a yearlong course of chemotherapy.
"This is all so new. Our whole life has changed," Becky Hollander said. "But we have been so overwhelmed and so blessed. We have gotten buckets of get well cards, some from people we don’t even know. Drake thought when this first happened that he wasn’t going to have any friends."
The first sign of trouble was a cough that wouldn’t go away, despite treatment with antibiotics, expectorants, and inhalers. Yet Drake continued to play for North Hall Middle’s Junior Trojans football team.
During the last game he participated in, on Sept. 22, Drake collided with another player. "He got the wind knocked out of him and he just couldn’t get his breath," said Becky. "Looking back, we realized he was only breathing with one lung."
She knew something was seriously wrong when Drake came to her and complained that his chest hurt. "I was really surprised when he said, ‘Mama, can you take me to the doctor?’"
She did, and this time insisted on a chest X-ray. It showed something murky in Drake’s lower right lung. A few hours later, he was sent for a CT scan. Then, suddenly, they were being referred to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
"They wanted us to be seen at Egleston as soon as possible," Becky said. "Everything was moving so fast."
That was on a Monday. By Friday, after a lung biopsy, a surgeon was telling the Hollanders that it looked like lymphoma.
"That was the longest weekend of my life," Becky said.
Further testing showed that the tumor growing into Drake’s lung and chest wall was a stage 3
anaplastic large-cell lymphoma. It’s a fast-growing cancer, but in children it has a cure rate of about 75 percent.
"They’re treating him as aggressively as possible," Becky said. "The doctors said they can’t let the cancer get into his spine, because then it will go straight to the brain."
Every Friday, Drake gets chemotherapy through a port, a catheter implanted in his chest. Some weeks, he also has to get chemo through a spinal tap, a painful procedure that requires sedation.
But when Drake was first told about the treatment regimen he’d be going through, he only had one question.
"He said, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ That was the only thing he was worried about," Becky said.
His doctors, however, are more concerned about his immune system, which will be weakened by chemotherapy. To reduce the risk of infection, he’ll have to avoid large crowds of people. That means Drake probably won’t be able to return to school this year.
"He has mixed emotions about it, because he’s Mr. Socialite and likes to be around people," Becky said.
And people like to be around Drake.
"He’s always happy-go-lucky and smiling," said Renee Strickland, a counselor at Wauka Mountain Elementary School. "He’s always been the one who kept everyone’s spirits up."
Drake attended Wauka Mountain in fourth and fifth grade, after transferring from Riverbend Elementary when school districts were redrawn. Even before he enrolled at North Hall Middle School, he was a familiar face to many, both there and at North Hall High, because his older siblings attended the same schools and he often came to their sporting events.
His brother Devin, also a football player, is now 21 and attends the University of Georgia. Sister Danielle is a senior at North Hall High, where she plays on the volleyball team.
Mamie Coker, whose daughter is one of Danielle’s teammates, said the Hollanders were a fixture at North Hall sporting events, and young Drake endeared himself to everyone.
"He is just the most likeable kid," she said. "He’s got personality and then some."
When word got around about his cancer diagnosis, it seemed unreal.
"It’s so unexpected in someone who’s apparently so healthy," said Coker, who is coordinator of health services for Hall County Schools.
Almost immediately, people sprang into action to help.
"It’s been an emotional time for the students. They want to express their love and concern," said Brad Brown, principal at North Hall Middle.
Some students decided the best way to show Drake he was not alone was to make themselves appear vulnerable, too.
"When Drake found out he was probably going to lose his hair, at least five students, including my 13-year-old son, decided to shave their heads," said Brown.
Knowing that Drake’s 12th birthday was coming up on Oct. 20, a teacher brought a video camera to school and encouraged students to record messages to him.
Becky said Drake’s fondest wish was to not be hospitalized on his birthday, and he was discharged just in time.
"When we came home that day, the driveway was lined with people, all cheering for him," she said.
Another wish was to attend a North Hall High football game, and Drake managed to do so on Nov. 2, despite undergoing chemo earlier that day.
"He had to stay in the press box (to avoid crowds), and we only let him stay a little while because it had been a treatment day," Becky said. "But he wanted to stay all night."
Gary Brown, principal at North Hall High, said the team dedicated a game to Drake, and one of the school’s business sponsors had souvenir "4 Drake" T-shirts made.
"We raised about $900 from that, and gave the proceeds to the family," he said.
Some of the shirts were also distributed to the middle school. "We raised over $1,700 selling them," said principal Brad Brown, who is not related to the high-school principal. "I thought it was pretty classy of the high school to dedicate a game-day shirt to a middle-school student."
Strickland said Wauka Mountain Elementary ordered a bunch of plastic bracelets similar to Lance Armstrong’s yellow LiveStrong bracelets, which support cancer research. But these are green and are inscribed with the words "4 Drake."
"Teachers have been selling them for a dollar," she said. "We also sent some to the high school and middle school to sell there."
Students are also showing their support in ways that don’t involve money. "Each week, a different grade level (kindergarten through sixth) makes handmade get-well cards for Drake," Strickland said.
And since kids these days are more comfortable sending an e-mail than a paper card, North Hall Middle parent Lynn Syfan set up a Web page for Drake via Egleston hospital’s CarePages Web site. As of Friday, more than 300 e-mails had been sent to Drake’s message board.
"The CarePage has been wonderful, because it’s a way for people to keep updated on what’s going on with Drake, without us having to get on the phone and call everybody," said Becky.
Many of the e-mailers just want Drake to know that they’re praying for him. Prayer groups and chains have been set up at Riverbend Baptist, Lakewood Baptist, and other churches.
Church members have also kept the family well fed. "We haven’t had to cook at all, because people have brought dinner every day," said Becky.
Others have helped by donating gas station gift cards, to pay for the family’s commute back and forth from the hospital in Atlanta.
The Hollanders have medical insurance. But because Jay Hollander is self-employed in the construction business, their policy is not as generous as the health plans available to employees of large companies. So the family has a lot of out-of-pocket expenses.
"Since Drake got sick, he’s been worried that he’s taking too much of our attention away from Devin and Danielle," Becky said. "And the other day, he said he was afraid that Danielle won’t be able to go to college because this is costing so much money."
But the Hollanders want Drake to experience things he enjoys, while he can, because doctors have warned that as treatment progresses, the effects of chemo will become more severe and Drake may not feel as well as he does now.
On Wednesday, they took him on a surprise visit to the Atlanta Falcons complex in Flowery Branch, where Drake was able to meet one of his heroes, cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
And last week, they took him on a long-planned trip to a game ranch in Ohio, where, after two days of watching and waiting, Drake shot an 11-point buck.
"The hunting trip had been booked over a year ago," Becky said. "My husband was trying to cancel it, and Drake was saying, ‘Go ahead and go without me.’ Then the high school contributed some money and we used it to buy plane tickets. It was the trip of a lifetime for Drake."
For now, the family is focused on the weekend after Thanksgiving, when Drake is scheduled to undergo another round of tests. If it appears that the chemotherapy is working, he will only have to take treatments every 21 days instead of once a week.
"His spirits are real good," said Becky. "I’ve told him he won’t get better if he has a negative attitude, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m positive, Mama. I’m going to be playing football next year.’"
Brad Brown said he’s not surprised by the outpouring of support that the Hollanders have received throughout North Hall.
"This community has a way of rallying around someone who’s in a crisis," he said. "When I think I think about what these parents are going through, my problems pale in comparison."