Some in her situation might just be content to be in remission, recovering from the biggest battle of their life and enjoying the holidays in the friendly confines of home with family.
But Grace Fritzsche isn’t like most people. Not by a long shot.
Fritzsche, a New Fairfield sophomore who is battling Stage 2 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, turned a terrible situation into a positive one for others over the last month. Fritzsche, her family — both lacrosse and actual — journeyed to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford in a bus to donate toys collected by the New Fairfield High sophomore.
“Grace is a star and not every kid is able to put up with this kind of effort in the face of adversity,” said Greg Schwarz, the school’s football and girls lacrosse coach, who aided Fritzsche in the process. “As a coach you look for these kinds of situations in life where you can help kids out.”
Donating the gifts with her friends at the hospital Wednesday, Fritzsche was all smiles as she was congratulated by CCMC staff on her tremendous effort. Fritzsche and her town played the role of Santa Claus, bringing several cars worth of toys to the CCMC warehouse. The toys were donated from residents through drop boxes at schools and a variety of local businesses. Others were donated through an Amazon wish list.
“I’ve had so much fun with my team,” Fritzsche said. “To be able to shop and get what I think the hospital needs is so much to do. I went to the school today and to have all my friends there load up the cars and coming up here was so much fun.”
Fritzsche on the experience pic.twitter.com/cbNp0ydomY
— Ryan Lacey (@RyanLacey11) December 18, 2019
Her attention was far elsewhere just several months ago.
Flashback to last spring when Fritzsche began feeling pain in her neck. Considerable swelling became out of control, medicine didn’t improve the situation and answers were sparse. Other symptoms of the condition were absent, which meant several doctors were consulted before a biopsy of the tissue in her lymph nodes.
Finally it was determined that she did indeed have Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a disease that begins in the lymph nodes but can spread quickly elsewhere.
In a strange way it was a slight relief for her family, who were warned of far worse outcomes than the fight that was ahead. The cancer remained localized and Fritzsche crushed the first round of chemotherapy in July, with her cancer going from 100 percent down to 20. It wasn’t smooth sailing, though, as a pair of infections meant more time in supervised care.
“She was getting sicker and sicker (before the diagnosis),” her mom Regina said. “I trusted (our doctor) and we were frustrated we couldn’t figure it out, and the flip side it was getting worse. Finally we were relieved; I know it sounds weird but it could have been so much worse. We were going to kick it out and she can move on with her life.”
A small port — a place where medicine is transferred directly into the vein — was implanted near Grace’s neck. Chemotherapy leads to hair loss, and the Fritzsche’s were prepared for that. A hairdresser came over to the house before her first treatment, and began shaving Grace. However she took the razor herself and finished the job.
“That for me was the hardest thing,” Grace said. “Obviously for a girl your hair means a lot to you. I shaved mine; I wasn’t going to have it fall out or pull it out myself. I shaved it the day before I started chemo. … Now I love it. It’s nice; I’ve taken the fastest showers I ever have.”
Fritzsche was pulled from school last May and hasn’t returned since. She receives one-on-one homebound schooling about 10 hours per week; she recently found out she made the honor roll for the first time. Though she doesn’t miss waking up and riding the bus, Fritzsche feels understandably isolated in her current situation.
“I definitely miss seeing my friends every day because that’s a big part of a teen girl or boy’s life right now,” Grace said. “But it’s just having that normalcy, I used to get up, go to school, go to practice and come home. That’s not how my life is anymore. It’s get up, go to chemo, come home and get rest.”
Fritzsche, a field hockey and lax player at the school who is battling Stage 2 Non-Hogkin’s Lymphoma, along with coach Greg Schwarz and others, raised toys in town for the last month pic.twitter.com/ziIp7c3c0q
— Ryan Lacey (@RyanLacey11) December 18, 2019
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The town did more than provide toys for Grace, though. Family friend Meghan Johnston set up a page on GoFundMe with a modest goal. Soon close to $30,000 was raised to help cover medical expenses, which floored the Fritzsches.
“It was overwhelming,” Regina said. “Honestly the whole process choked me up, because we’re not from New Fairfield, we’re transplants. It was totally overwhelming to the point where it’s beyond anything. The sense of community is amazing; you know a lot of people, but you don’t realize it.”
Witnessing firsthand the struggle that many kids go through in cancer treatment — along with the generosity of the town she calls home — Fritzsche wanted to give back. By chance, she spent the majority of her time in treatment with children much younger, including newborns.
“They needed these toys, that’s what brings those kids joy,” Grace said. “I know how much this town can help, and how much help the people up there need. I brought the idea to (Schwarz) and he loved it.”
A quick brainstorm led to the toy idea and Schwarz helped get the ball rolling. Boxes were placed at popular spots in town and before they knew it, a bus became their sleigh with one destination in mind. Lacrosse clinics were also held to raise funds for the family.
“Toys are a huge part of a children’s hospital,” said Kelly Foy, a child life specialist at CCMC. “A kid’s job is to play and toys are a tool to be able to do that. … Even getting a kid that doesn’t want to get out of bed and walking laps around the floor; to entice them to go to the play room, it’s a huge difference.”
Having the condition meant halting what Fritzsche loved doing the most, which was incredibly difficult. Fritzsche began lacrosse in fifth grade at the behest of friend Margaret Morgan, the daughter of boys coach Marty Morgan.
“She’s the sweetest girl and would do anything for anybody,” Morgan said. “There’s not a bad ounce in her at all, she works so hard. It’s hard to imagine seeing these kids with cancer and dealing with something at the level; I know she’s a battler because she’s a great kid.”
Fritzsche and Morgan are both talented goalies for the program, which makes their friendship even more unique. Fritzsche’s friend group has been pivotal to her recovery, she said.
“I always find it super important to be there for her,” Margaret Morgan said. “I was one of the first people she told that she had cancer; it was a huge deal. I came to the hospital with her and when she came up with this toy drive it was awesome.”
Fritzsche’s next treatment will begin the day after Christmas, and a scan after will determine future action. Chance of recurrence is very low, doctors have told her.
She said she hopes to return to the Rebels’ lacrosse field by spring or summer, though taking it day-by-day is the way of life now and the road to full fitness is incredibly difficult. She still plays catch with her family members in the backyard in preparation for a triumphant return. .
“Will I have the energy?” Grace said. “It’s a long road with chemo, having no energy to go to school, then playing a sport. I say to myself I’m going to play summer lacrosse and play New Fairfield lacrosse, just because I need to say that.”
And for now that means spending the hectic holiday season around those who love her. She might have to invite the entire town, though.
“This town is my family,” Grace said. “And I knew if anything were to happen they would be behind me 100 percent. I don’t know half the people in town, and I see people that I don’t know come up to me making sure I’m ok.”