Brentwood community support helps family through difficult time
Sitting on the pool deck, with her blue bandana tied tightly around her head, Sara Frey giggles as she talks with friends and splashes her toes in the warm water.
She loves to swim, but can't quite get back into the water yet; even so, the Brentwood High School sophomore said she is just happy to be back at school with her friends and preparing for those activities that she enjoys the most.
There were months when she couldn't do much of anything. Diagnosed in May with acute myeloid leukemia, Sara underwent four rounds of chemotherapy and spent weeks at a time at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She now is in remission.
It was her friends — and the community — that got Sara, 15, and her family through the most difficult times by visiting the hospital, delivering meals, holding fundraisers and doing just about anything they could think of to show the Freys they were there for them, said Sara's mother, Colleen Frey. And even as Sara attempts to get back to her “normal” activities, the community still is rallying around her.
The latest fundraiser, “Swim for Sara,” a meet between the boys and girls swimming teams from Brentwood and Thomas Jefferson high schools, was held Dec. 3 and raised $1,900 for the Frey family: father Sean, a public works employee in Brentwood Borough; mother Colleen; and daughters Sara and Dana.
“It's just so overwhelming to see the whole community come together,” Colleen said. “It's the support of Brentwood — it made it a little easier. They took worries away so that we could focus on Sara.”
Sara, a member of Brentwood's swimming and track teams, winter guard group, musical theater performances and band, went for a regular check-up at the doctor's on May 14. The doctor noticed red spots on Sara's skin, known as petechiae, Colleen said.
From there, the family went to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, where they were sent to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and the testing began, Sara said.
“I didn't think it was anything,” said Sara, noting that she remained calm.
As the family learned Sara's diagnosis, Colleen Frey — who survived Stage 0 breast cancer — knew she had to put on a brave face for her daughter.
“I realized, I can't go in there crying. I don't know how I did it, but I pulled myself together. I said, ‘Mommy did it, you can do it too,'” Colleen Frey said. “There was one tear that trickled down her cheek.”
Sara started treatment almost immediately and by day three, she was cancer-free.
Four rounds of chemotherapy — spread out over several months — took a toll on Sara's body though, Colleen Frey, said. During one of the rounds, Sara's appendix burst.
“She was really sick,” she said.
Sara could not have surgery, so doctors gave her antibiotics, and “her body did exactly what it was supposed to do,” ridding itself of the burst appendix.
Sara's friends, classmates and the Brentwood community showed their support, Colleen Frey said.
The first 10 days, especially, people “flooded” Sara's room at Children's Hospital.
“There would be like 30 people coming each day,” Sara said. “It was a fire hazard to have so many people in the room at one time.”
Nearly all 420 students at Brentwood High School began planning or participating in some type of event for Sara within days of her diagnosis, Principal Jason Olexa said.
There were fliers on the walls, bracelet and T-shirt sales and car washes. There even was a “Sara's Spirit Week” held in Frey's honor.
“The initial reaction was: Everybody kicked in to a mode of help,” Olexa said. “They wanted to get behind her.”
Students formed “Sara's Army,” spreading the word to their classmates via a hashtag on Twitter. Local businesses held a fundraiser for Sara. When Sara had to miss her school's homecoming dance this fall because she was in the hospital, her friends brought the event to her.
An iPod device played party music, the students dressed in their formalwear, and they celebrated in the hospital's atrium.
Also, on Sara's birthday, 15 of her friends spent the day at the hospital.
Sara's smile that “brightens a room” and “sweet personality” are among the reasons everyone at Brentwood had to try and help, her classmates said.
“She's so nice, and she has a really good sense of humor,” said Sara's friend since sixth grade, Marygrace Hines, 16, also a sophomore at Brentwood.
“She is just so widely loved by everyone in school,” said Brentwood senior Josh O'Neil, 18, who sold bracelets as a fundraiser for Sara.
Through it all, Sara remained humble and appreciative for all that the community was doing.
“She's like, ‘Mommy, they don't have to do this,'” Colleen Frey said.
“I was really moved by everyone helping me,” Sara said. “We're really thankful.”
Colleen Frey scribbled down a list of everyone she wanted to thank. The list overflowed from two columns and included nearly every Brentwood business, many residents and government entities.
“We just want to thank everyone,” she said.
At Brentwood High School, administrators also offered educational programs on leukemia for teachers and students.
“We made this a teachable moment,” Olexa said.
While Sara was in the hospital, high school administrators and teachers also did what they could to allow her to continue with her studies, even having the high school sophomore Skype, or video conference, from the hospital with her chemistry class, Olexa said.
Sara returned to school in October.
“Being back in school, I knew I could do other things, like swimming and band and winter guard,” Sara said.
Sara played during the opening of the Brentwood band's performances during several football games.
Her first time back on the field sticks out clearly in O'Neil's mind.
“She kept saying, ‘Let's play more,'” he said.
Sara is not yet allowed to swim alongside her teammates, but she still goes to practice and stands on the side of the pool.
“I'm just glad to have her back here,” said her boyfriend, Christian Reinhardt, 18, a Brentwood senior. “Having her there makes me want to do better.”
Sara has inspired many at Brentwood, her classmates said.
Her head swim coach, Mark Wroblewski, said that anytime he thinks that he cannot do anything, he thinks of Sara.
“Everyday that I have a bad day, I think about Sara, because she would love to be doing this and (be) this healthy,” he said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.