The Remarkable Story of How a Town of 1,000 People Raised $45,000 to Save a Teen’s Life

The parents, who also had cancer, couldn't afford their son's treatment—until the town stepped in.

brainscanCourtesy, Michelle BruceOne cancer diagnosis can be devastating, but having three cancer patients in the same household can turn a whole family upside-down.

Michelle Bruce had breast cancer; her husband, Jeremy, had thyroid cancer; and their son Holden had a brain tumor. With three other children to take care of, the family moved to Michelle’s hometown of Franklin, Nebraska, six years ago so her parents could help.

portraitCourtesy, Michelle BruceDoctors had found Holden’s brain tumor, pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma, when he was 12 years old. His family was living in a small town outside Lincoln, Nebraska, but there were no pediatric brain surgeons in the state. Holden had two surgeries at adult clinics in Omaha that involved removing a softball-sized piece of his skull. Both treatments were tough, and swelling left him in intensive care for about a week. (These are the 16 things cancer patients wish you knew.)

When Holden’s cancer came back again in 2012, the Omaha clinic wasn’t able to operate. But the Bruce family wouldn’t give up. They reached out to Boston Children’s Hospital, which has better equipment and surgeons with more experience operating on kids. After looking at Holden’s records, the doctor sent back her prognosis: She was confident she could remove the tumor for good.

portraitCourtesy, Michelle BruceThe family was beyond relieved, until they learned insurance wouldn’t cover any of the operation’s costs. The surgery would cost $39,000—more than the parents, who’d already spent their savings, 401k, and stocks on their own cancer treatments, could afford. The Bruces were devastated.

In a town of just 1,000 people, though, word travels fast. Within days, a local woman Michelle had never met in person called to say she was planning an event to raise money for Holden. Michelle was touched, but figured a small-town fundraiser wouldn’t put much of a dent in the tens of thousands of dollars they needed.

portraitCourtesy, Michelle BruceThe day of the fundraiser was frigid and icy, but that didn’t stop Franklin residents from showing up for the silent auction, free will dinner, and “Team Holden” T-shirt sale. So many people were crammed in the school cafeteria that they had to open up the gymnasium for spillover.

The event was uplifting, and the Bruce family figured it had probably raised a couple thousand dollars. Back at her parent’s house, Michelle got a call from the fundraiser’s organizer.

They’d made enough to cover the surgery.

“I just didn’t know what to say,” says Michelle. “Nobody could really believe it.”

portraitCourtesy, Michelle BruceOver the next few days, even more money came in from people who hadn’t been able to attend the event in person. In all, the town raised $45,000—enough to cover not just Holden’s hospital bills, but for Michelle and Jeremy’s trip to Boston with their son.

Holden’s third surgery went much more smoothly than the first two. Surgeons only had to remove a piece of his skull only the size of a quarter, and by the next day, and he was released the next day to stay in the hospital’s hotel with his parents. “He had no swelling, no pain,” says Michelle. “It was really shocking, the difference.” Check out more incredible cancer breakthroughs that will bring you hope.

The family hasn’t gotten rid of cancer for good—Jeremy’s cancer isn’t treatable, and Michelle is in remission—but Holden is cancer-free. The now-19-year-old is attending Central Community College-Hastings on a full-ride scholarship, studying to be a diesel mechanic. After graduation, he plans to move back to Franklin, the compassionate town that supported him through his final cancer treatment.

MORE: This Small Town Raised $54,000 for a Couple’s Troubled Pregnancy

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.