Augusta High School students and staff rally around friend who is still seeking diagnosis for unknown disease
When life gets tough, it is comforting to have a strong family to lean on.
Patrick Bruce is lucky in that way. He has his parents and two siblings who have been very supportive as unusual health problems have affected him.
But Bruce has a family that extends far beyond his home. His family includes all of Augusta High School.
Bruce was always healthy growing up until one day in 2008 when he endured something resembling a seizure. He recovered from the initial incident and continued to play in the band and enjoy sports as he had before. He even became a statewide officer for SkillsUSA.
But about a year later, he had another seizure. This one was more severe and he lost the ability to speak. Recovery was also slower after the second incident.
"Everything seemed normal but he just couldn't speak," said Patrick's mother Laurie Bruce who is with him in Minnesota as a team of Mayo Clinic doctors attempt to diagnose and treat him.
Several diagnoses were reached but none of them yielded a treatment plan to restore Patrick's speech until a doctor recognized that his streptococcus bacteria levels were high even though he never had strep throat or other classic strep infection symptoms.
A course of antibiotics and steroids combined with speech therapy allowed Patrick to regain his speaking abilities and it seemed his difficult journey was over.
But then came the relapse.
"Everything that was working quit working," Laurie said. "After all of the bandaid treatments, there were relapses."
After the first soccer game this year, Patrick fell ill again.
Now Patrick is without speech, suffers from frequent headaches, struggles to walk due to significant joint pain and has tremors that increase his discomfort.
Laurie and Patrick have been in Minnesota for more than a week. They have recently moved into a Ronald McDonald House facility and see about a half dozen doctors and speech and physical therapists each day. They still don't have a diagnosis or a treatment plan that offers him any hope.
But they do have hope.
They know that Patrick has the support of his friends at Augusta High School, his bandmates, his soccer teammates, and the other SkillsUSA members.
"They are like a whole new family," Laurie said. "So many teachers have been wonderful mentors to Patrick and the students in general are just wonderful."
Augusta High School Principal Donna Zerr said her students are a very accepting and caring group and that has shown in how they have treated Patrick and other students as well.
"Patrick is a really good kid and everyone is rallying around him," Zerr said. "That doesn't happen by accident. We foster that attitude that is found in so many members of the staff."
Some examples of that support for Patrick include a student-led prayer group at the flag pole at the high school this week, a band fundraiser that brought in $1,900 for living expenses for the family, and plans to have a "pay it forward" fundraiser where students give a small amount of money and ask friends to join them. Zerr said that anyone who wanted to help out could contact the high school to find out what they can do.
One teacher who has been especially important for Patrick at the high school is Band Director Todd Hollis.
"Patrick is one of the best kids I have had," Hollis said. "He is a hard worker and very respectful."
He said his baritone saxophone player couldn't speak when he first came to Hollis' band. He mimed and sent text messaged to communicate but he kept working hard and improving. Then one day he surprised his band director with a simple greeting.
"When he first was able to talk again, he came to me and said, 'Hello, Mr. Hollis" and it brought me to tears," he said.
Because the saxophone was how Patrick was able to express himself when he couldn't through speech, his speech therapist, Renee Berggren – who also leads the drill team for the AHS Band – used similar methods to work with him.
Hollis said he wasn't surprised to see how the band, soccer team, school and community have supported the Bruce family during these difficult times.
"This is a great community that is home to a lot of good, Christian people," Hollis said. "But seeing kids praying for him and people donating money to support them just reminds you that Augusta is a special place."
Hollis said he was anxious for Patrick to get well and come back home – for Patrick's sake and for more selfish reasons.
"I want to put him to work," Hollis said with a laugh. "He's a good saxophone player and we can use him."
All of his friends share the same desire for Patrick to return home and share the hallways with them.
Until then, they continue to find ways to support him and his family.
"We are thankful for all of the support and prayers," Laurie said. "It means so much to all of us."