Nicole Grabara’s brother, Michael, won’t be in the audience when she receives her diploma from Socastee High School on Thursday.
But they’ll soon be living together in an apartment and attending the College of Charleston because of what the 18-year-old did for her 20-year-old brother. (Michael is a Socastee graduate and a sophomore at the College of Charleston).
“They are close,” Marzane Grabara said of her children.
They are closer now.
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Instead of giddily trying on a cap and gown and swapping reminiscents with classmates, Nicole spent most of the final days leading up to the last week of her high school career saving Michael’s life, enduring a painful surgery to provide him bone marrow to combat a rare disease called aplastic anemia. Months earlier, Michael had helped a non-profit raise awareness about the need for more bone marrow donors.
Aplastic anemia slows the production of new cells and leaves the person weak and fatigued and susceptible to uncontrolled bleeding and infection.
“You go from one moment planning out your future attending the same college as your brother, to the next being told by countless ... doctors to prepare for the worst,” Nicole, who was too weak to do an interview earlier this week, wrote on a fund-raising site to help offset the cost of his treatments.
About a month before Christmas, Michael began feeling tired, but no one thought much about it. He was dealing with the stress of finals, which made his tiredness seem like nothing out of the ordinary.
Then he got really weak, then for two days he couldn’t get out of bed, then he briefly felt a bit better before succumbing to blurred vision.
An ophthalmologist found blood in one of his eyes and said, “I’m not the doctor, but this is really bad,” Marzane Grabara said.
And it was.
He was rushed to Grand Strand Medical Center, then to the Medical University of South Carolina, where doctors were surprised he was still alive, his condition had worsened so much.
Doctors searched for a possible bone marrow donor and were relieved when Nicole’s tests showed she was a perfect match. That’s when Michael began a regimen that included chemotherapy to kill off the diseased cells and Nicole began enduring painful injections to boost her cell production to ready her system for the surgery.
“We did not expect any of this,” Marzane Grabara said.
But she was “overwhelmed” when they got word Nicole was a match.
“We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We really got lucky. At least we knew this first step in a long process” would work out. “The rest should really go really smoothly. Michael has bad days and good days, but overall, he’s really doing very good. He’s strong emotionally; he took this very well.”
As the names of graduates are called one-by-one, and as a school official will surely tell audience members to not be too rowdy, there might not be a loud cheer from the Grabara clan.
It’s not because they aren’t grateful; they are, doubly so because of Nicole’s entry into the next phase of life and Michael’s continued one.
They may be quieter than other families because they are tired. It’s been a trying few months.
Nicole spent the past week recovering and may not be strong enough to make it through the entire graduation ceremony; Michael will be recovering in Charleston for the next few months, hoping to restart his college career in the fall or by next spring; and other family members are in far-flung places such as Canada and Poland and likely won’t be able to attend.
“The first two weeks I did not leave his side, I couldn't,” Nicole wrote. “He left me once when he moved away to Charleston, and I'm not letting him leave me again.”
The family has insurance through the Affordable Care Act, which made Michael’s early treatment possible. But they don’t know how high the costs will go, given that the type of surgery he had sometimes reaches more than $200,000.
And they have other expenses from having to spend so much time in Charleston, as well as having to hire someone to work at their ice cream shop, Ocean 7, on Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, while they’ve been away.
By Wednesday, the family had raised more than $6,100 of its $20,000 goal.
To find out more about the fundraiser, visit: http://tinyurl.com/nwzbrvg.