Homestead grad, new teacher overcomes malaria

Gabby Hollman graduated from Homestead High School and completed her student teaching at Summit Midldle School. After a difficult summer, she recently took her first teaching post, with Northwest Allen County Schools. (Louis Wyatt)

By Louis Wyatt

The summer after college graduation is a turbulent time for many, but for Gabby Hollman it was more than she’d bargained for. Between traveling halfway across the world, spending the remainder of her summer in the hospital and starting her first full-time job out of school, she’s ready for things to settle down.

Hollman was one of many new teachers to embark on a new career Aug. 14 at Northwest Allen County Schools, but the story of her whirlwind summer started in Africa.

Hollman, a Homestead High School graduate, completed her education degree at Indiana University this year, finishing half of her student teaching at Summit Middle School before taking the opportunity to teach the remaining eight weeks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, through IU’s Global Gateway program.

Everything was going fine until about a week and a half after she returned home, when she developed a 104-degree fever and started to feel aches and pains all over her body.

“Things went south really, really quick,” she said.

Hollman’s family rushed her to the emergency room at Parkview the day of her sister’s high school graduation, and tests revealed that despite taking medication, sleeping under a mosquito net and keeping bug spray handy, Hollman had contracted malaria. By that time, the parasite had already begun to destroy the red cells in Hollman’s blood and produce a waste product that was being filtered through her now debilitated kidneys.

“My blood was basically water,” she said. “I wasn’t getting good quality blood to my organs so they were basically all starting to fail at the same time.”

Just months out of school and the rest of her life ahead of her, Hollman had her first near-death experience. She was taken to the intensive care unit where she would spend the next week suffering from intense body pains and fatigue. She was also unable to keep any solids down, which meant she was unable to take oral medication. In order to treat her, the hospital had to fly in a different drug that isn’t approved by the FDA. Once the malaria parasite was out of her body, she was moved to a hospital bed for another week of treatment — though the pain lasted between six and eight weeks. Because her appetite was affected by the medication she was taking, Hollman said she lost about 25 pounds.

“By the time I was discharged, I could barely walk,” she said.

That resulted in physical therapy sessions, and Hollman also had to start dialysis three days a week because the malaria had caused acute kidney failure. A couple weeks before school started, she said the doctors were hopeful she would be done with the dialysis soon.

Hollman’s first trip to the hospital was on June 2, and about a week before that she had applied for a position as a sixth-grade English teacher at Maple Creek Middle School. During her stay at Parkview, she received a voicemail from Bill Toller, the school’s principal, inviting her to an interview. At that point, Hollman was so weak that she could barely even pick up her phone, so her mom emailed Toler to explain her situation and express her daughter’s interest in the position. About a week and a half into her hospital stay, Hollman was getting ready for an interview with Toller and Maple Creek assistant principal Carter Jones right in her hospital room, just 30 minutes after finishing her dialysis for the day.

“The hospital staff kept stopping by and saying they were rooting and praying for me, and they asked how it went afterward,” she recalled. “The interview was about an hour long, and I was saying the right things, but my brain was a total fog. Somehow I was able to carry a conversation well enough and I really enjoyed it, but I fell asleep as soon as they left. That was the most mental energy I had used in a long time. We were just trying our best to make it as normal as possible.”

Shortly after, Hollman accepted the job, and she said Toler has been checking in on her every week since.

“He has walked me through every step,” she said. “I could not be more grateful for a principal that’s willing to go above and beyond.”

After Hollman was released from the hospital in mid-June, she had to return again due to a complication with her dialysis port, but she’s been getting better every day since. Despite her crazy summer, she’s still excited to be teaching on her own for the first time.

“I love what I do, I love the students and Malaria’s not going to take that away from me,” she said with a smile.

Nevertheless, it won’t be easy going.

“That first month of school is probably going to be pretty hard energy-wise,” she said a few weeks ago. “I haven’t had big, long days like that where I’m up and moving around. That’s kind of new for my muscles, so there may be some times where I need to sit down for a little bit while I teach.”

Hollman was in a seventh-grade classroom during her student teaching at Summit Middle School, and she also received an offer for a teaching position at a high school but turned it down because she wanted to teach middle school again. She thinks she’ll feel at home at Northwest Allen because it reminds her of the culture at Southwest Allen. Wherever she ended up, she knew she wanted to stay close to her family.

“Fort Wayne is special,” she said. “Not everyone feels that way, but it took leaving Fort Wayne for me to realize that.”

Not a lot of prospective teachers are privy to the idea of teaching at the middle school level, she noted, but her time at Summit changed her perspective.

“I went in terrified because middle-schoolers can be scary,” she laughed, “and a couple weeks in I thought ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Most of all, she’s excited to be teaching in a building that’s new to both her and her sixth-grade students.

“A lot of people probably don’t agree with me that 12-year-olds are really cool,” she laughed. “I just think they’re fun and they don’t quite have that chip on their shoulder like some high schoolers do. They’re trying to figure things out at this point, and sixth and seventh grade in particular is the first time they’re being treated more like adults. They’re thinking more independently for the first time — what a prime time to be in their life and help them through that.”

Before school started, Hollman said she was planning to share her experience with malaria with her students to help them get to know her better and hopefully encourage them to share their own stories with her.

“I want to build a culture where we can share our stories with each other, so you have to open up about yourself as well,” she said.

Her message?

“You are a lot stronger than you think. Going through this definitely hasn’t been easy, but sixth graders are coming into a new school, it’s very overwhelming and they don’t know what to expect. Some of them might have bad experiences at school or at home, but you can get through it. And it’s important to be surrounded by people that love and support you. I could not have come out of this as positive as I did if it weren’t for my family and friends.”

Hollman said she has almost always wanted to be a teacher, though for a brief period in high school she considered studying criminal justice. She credits her teachers — specifically the English teachers she had at Homestead — for inspiring her to pursue a career in education.

“I’ve always enjoyed English, and throughout the years at Homestead I just had fantastic English teachers,” she said.

She is also passionate about reading and writing, and enjoys “giving students an opportunity to use their voices.” After she left the hospital, one of her friends loaned her “Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope” by Katherine Elizabeth Clark, who recounted her story of suffering a tragic accident while watching her children play on the playground. Clark was suddenly paralyzed and was told she would never walk again — before beating the odds.

“I find myself in the same spot that she is whenever I pick up the book,” Hollman said. “I’m going to be hopeful despite all odds.”

Aside from the malaria, of course, she said teaching in Tanzania was a positive experience. Teaching classes of 50 and 70 students with just a chalkboard and no textbooks was a challenging but rewarding job, she said.

“My family would hate to hear me say this, but I would love to go back,” she laughed. “I got malaria against the odds — I just got unlucky.”