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The tattoo on her arm said it all: Grace Orzechowski was a fighter

  • COURTESY—AnneLaForce COURTESY—AnneLaForce

  • From left: Ray Orzechowski with his daughter Hannah, son Sam, daughter Grace, and wife Anne LaForce in front of a lifeguard stand on Long Beach Island, N.J., in July 2019. Jefferson MacDonald / Courtesy

  • Lifeguard Stand family photo at Long Beach Island, NJ July 2019.  COURTESY—Jefferson MacDonald

  • A “Fighting with Grace” T-shirt designed by Ray Orzechowski’s office team for the 2019 Rock N’ Race, altered by Grace to read, “I Am Grace!” Courtesy of Ray Orzechowski

  • Grace and Tyler Olander – Boston , Mass. COURTESY—Hannah Orzechowski

  • “ Fighter” tattoo. Grace had this tattoo placed in May 2020. COURTESY—Jefferson MacDonald

  • “Fighter” tattoo that Grace got in May 2020. COURTESY—Jefferson MacDonald

  • Hannah, Sam and Grace Orzechowski on vacation at Long Beach Island, N.J. in July 2019. COURTESY—Anne LaForce

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/16/2021 5:19:34 PM

She called herself a “fighter,” tattooing the scripted word, in black ink, onto her inner forearm while fighting for her life.

Her family used the verb “pivot” again and again to describe her adaptability, explaining that Grace Orzechowski absorbed the emotional and physical pain caused by her terminal brain cancer like a champ, never losing hope no matter what all those doctors told her.

Her lacrosse coach at Concord High said Orzechowski was team captain because that’s the way her teammates wanted it. Tom Arnold, the former owner of Arnie’s Place, called her the “Captain” when she worked for him because the label simply fit.

And her boyfriend Tyler Olander, who’s 6-foot-10 and played college basketball with Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker at the University of Connecticut, said he was happy to follow the trail of compassion and competitiveness and charisma forged by Grace.

Right up through the day she died, on Dec. 20.

“I’ve been around a lot of team leaders,” said Olander, who won a national championship at UConn in 2014, “and all I can say to you is that she is above them all.”

Olander joined a conference call with Grace’s family – her parents, Ray Orzechowski and Anne LaForce, her sister, 26-year-old Hannah, and her brother, Sam, 20.

They wanted to remember Grace, even with the wound so fresh.

“We love to talk about her. It’s easy,” LaForce said. “It’s joyful, and we were wondering how we would feel once this happened.”

A new reality

Even after the tragedy of a 24-year-old dying after a two-year struggle with brain cancer, unlocking old memories kept spirits up.

Once, Sam was in the unenviable position of being the little brother, a grade school kid targeted by his evil sisters, the high schoolers with strong personalities and a stronger bond who were born just 17 months apart.

“The year (Hannah) moved to Boston for school, Grace and I were home and my parents thought we going to kill each other,” said Sam, who’s studying industrial engineering at Northeastern University. “There were a couple of broken things around the house.”

Soon, though, Sam got the message, joining Grace’s orbit later in his teens and benefiting from her integrity and thoughts and behavior.

“I started molding my personality after her,” Sam said. “She was the best role model I ever could have asked for.”

The bond between the sisters suffered no such early fraying. Grace and Hannah were one grade apart. They played jokes on friends, pretending they were twins.

And in a sense, they were.

Coming from UConn, driving home to Concord for the weekend, Grace always stopped in Boston to pick up Hannah at Northeastern.

“I always wanted her to be part of my friends’ groups,” said Hannah, who works for a software company that specializes in research and development. “She’d say to me, ‘I love that you are me, only better.’ It was just so special. I loved sharing her with my people.”

School, sports, success

Grace’s academic and sports accomplishments filled a detailed timeline, sent to me by her father Ray, a Concord dentist. Grace played lacrosse and field hockey at Concord High, captained both teams and won a state championship in lacrosse in 2012.

Add the intangibles, like mixing with and cheering for the school’s junior varsity lacrosse team, and the aura of an emerging leader followed Grace everywhere.

“A great role model,” said Steph Johnson of Derry, Grace’s high school lacrosse coach. “Her peers respected her. She played midfield, so her stats weren’t great, but she was always willing to help her teammates out and pass off so they could score instead.

“The girls voted for the player they thought should be captain,” Johnson continued. “They wanted someone they could work with and look to as a positive role model.”

She met Olander at Uconn. As her father noted on his timeline, his daughter met “the love of her life.”

“He’s far more than a boyfriend,” he said. “He’s a big presence in the family. Grace got to know romantic love. As a family, you can give her love, but that allowed them to experience that other part of life. He was part of this decision-making process and he was there for all (meetings).”

Clicking, then loving

They met online three years ago. It didn’t take long for Olander to feel Grace’s strong, positive vibe. She was a senior the year Olander graduated.

“Great fun,” Olander said. “A great relationship in all aspects. You can not put Grace into words. She had her own way of doing things, and she was unapologetically herself and a kind person you wanted to follow.”

After UConn, she pursued her an advanced degree in physical therapy at Franklin Pierce University. Severe headaches in the fall of 2108 led to testing and scans and mystery. And a series of pivots as well, one piece of bad news at a time.

She had to leave Franklin Pierce. She was diagnosed with a highly malignant brain tumor in Feb. of 2019. She endured extensive treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost her hair, wore a wig, lost sight in one eye, wore a patch.

She still found time to return to UConn, where she danced for 18 hours in the annual HuskyThon, raising money for a children’s medical center. She had recently revealed her illness. She hoped for $5,000 and raised $36,000, a HuskyThon record.

She improved, the tumors faded. Then the tumors returned. That cycle happened again, a heartbreaking turn that had devastating effects on everyone.

And how did Grace respond to all those setbacks? She pivoted, of course. Better than anyone else did.

Still fighting cancer, amazed at the care she had received from radiation therapists at the Dana Farber cancer Institute, Grace, shockingly, went back to school, to New Hampshire Technical Institute, to study in its radiation therapy program.

Just like that. Fight cancer. Back to school. Change career paths.

“When most folks get treated for this, they do not have good memories about it,” said Amy VonKadich, the department chair of diagnostic medical imaging at NHTI.

“You do it to get better, but undergoing something like that to get better, and then it turns into something you want to do as a career, she’s the first person I’ve ever seen do that,” VonKadich said.

‘It was just time’

Even near the end, Grace would not yield.

Three months before she died, there she was, in the passenger’s seat in her mother’s car, using a walker to get around campus.

“She’d get to class early,” LaForce said. “I’d walk her in. She wanted to get back just for the energy. She worried she was doing too much, but she was determined not to let things change because of the cancer.”

Medical solutions and treatments only gave false hope. Glioblastoma is the most aggressive cancer that originates in the brain, an elusive enemy known for retreating initially, then bypassing medical obstacles in its relentless attack on the body.

And with hope fading – essentially gone, actually – guess what Grace chose to do: switch to the Keto Diet, of course. Eliminate sugar to starve the cancer. Eat red meat and bacon for protein-enriched calories. Keep punching.

So everyone pivoted.

“It was another way we could feel empowered when treating her cancer,” her father said. “We ate red meat. Every time she ate bacon she’d act like it was the first time she’d ever had it. Every morning, she’d say, ‘Bacon, please.’ ”

Those words were put on a bracelet to show support. Another donation-raising bracelet read “pivot.” She got her “Fighter” tattoo while in hospice care.

And she died at home, her choice, eating bacon to the end, going to school to the end, inspiring to the end. Fading away in hospice was not an option.

“She wanted to make sure she’s known as the girl who went off hospice,” LaForce said. “She decided it was just time.”

Grace died at home on Dec. 20. But not before squeezing and kissing hands. She’d whisper, “Love you more,” each time someone said they loved her.

Her name lives forever at NHTI, which created the Grace K. Orzechowski Memorial Scholarship.

A pair of $1,000 scholarships will be awarded, including one to Grace’s former classmate in NHTI’s radiation program. Donations exceed $41,000.

“She got bad news and she would process it and cry and say, ‘I am done being sad, let’s move on,’ ” Ray Orzechowski said. “We just provided the love anyone in that position needed.”

Though gone physically, she’s still here, her mother said.

“Her presence is everywhere right now The wind and the fog are lifting. Her young energy is so strong that I feel her.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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