It was a hard day in January when Irving Elementary teacher Nick Sakellaris had to tell his multiage class of fourth- and fifth-graders that his cancer had come back.
“It was tough for me and for them,” said Sakellaris, 34, known to most as “Mr. Sak.” “It was a lot of emotion that day.”
But last Wednesday, his last day of school before his treatment began, students smiled and hope seemed to drift through Mr. Sak’s classroom. Two students shaved their heads, including Evan Rhodes-Martin, “because I wanted to make him feel good.” All of the students had red “Team Sak” bracelets to show support.
Michael Hayden, a “veteran” in Mr. Sak’s class (a sports fanatic, Sakellaris calls his fourth-graders “rookies” and his fifth-graders “veterans”), said he was “kind of” worried about the return of Mr. Sak’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he first beat in 2003.
But Rhodes-Martin said he’s not worried.
“He’s going to one of the best hospitals to cheat this disease,” Rhodes-Martin said.
Sakellaris said the high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant treatment he’ll undergo at RUSH Oak Park Hospital has a 90-percent cure rate. Doctors will remove bone marrow and freeze the cells during the intensive chemotherapy. Afterward, they’ll return his bone marrow cells, which will replenish his blood cells, according to the National Cancer Institute’s description of the treatment.
“They’re doing this procedure so it goes away and never comes back again,” Sakellaris said. He said he probably relapsed because his treatment in 2003 had to be stopped while he fought an infection.
But Mr. Sak’s got more than science on his side. His family is an “unbelievable support system,” as is his second family-the Irving community.
Between 500 and 600 of the Team Sak bracelets have already been sold, said Ron Martin, co-president of the Irving PTO. Mr. Sak wanted the money to go the (hockey legend) Mario Lemieux Foundation, which funds cancer research.
Irving parents and others are donating to an account at The Perfect Dinner, 809 South Blvd., for meals for the Sakellaris family during the days they will spend at the hospital.
“This school is pretty unbelievable in terms of helping me deal with the whole situation,” Sakellaris said.
And Irving teachers-through an annual pie-in-the-face contest that raises about $500-and the PTO pitched in to buy Mr. Sak a laptop computer, which serves two purposes. First, he loves movies. He realized during his 2003 treatment that laughter is a necessary part of medicine.
“It’s a powerful thing to help you take your mind off things,” he said.
But even more important, the laptop will give Mr. Sak a line to the outside world and a way for students, teachers and parents to keep in touch through e-mail.
For those preferring the more personal touch of snail mail, a big red box sits in the Irving office where anyone can drop a card or a letter. That should help his recovery, especially during the time he’ll spend in isolation while his immune system is rebuilding.
“It’s pretty much boy-in-a-bubble for 3-4 weeks,” Sakellaris said.
Well-wishing cards already line the top of his chalkboard: “Think positive” and “Get Well Soon,” with the O’s made to look like eyes.
His homeroom students and their parents gave Mr. Sak one big card on his last day-a quilt of squares that each student made, brought together in his favorite colors and a sports theme. The quilt was presented at a pizza party thrown at Salerno’s, the only pizza for Mr. Sak.
The community’s response has been overwhelming, Sakellaris said. “Sometimes I want to say to them, stop, but it’s just such a nice thing,” he said. “They would do it for anybody.”
Irving is a supportive place, agreed John Hodge, Irving principal, but Mr. Sak isn’t just anybody.
“He does a lot of things that benefit not only his homeroom but the whole school community,” Hodge said. He leads the WORM (Working On Reading in the Morning) program, which helps 30 students four days a week on their reading skills, and coordinates the 3-on-3 basketball tournament and the school sleepover.
In his spare time, he’s the assistant basketball coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School, his alma mater.
“That’s tough, too, because we’re having a pretty good season, and it’s a really good group of kids,” Sakellaris said.
Students say Mr. Sak is different because he’s nice, “doesn’t get us in trouble a lot” and plays football with them on the playground.
“It’s a very special quality when a teacher can connect with kids. He definitely does that,” Martin said. “But to take it another step, he connects with parents, too.”
Sakellaris was thankful he got more time to spend with his students this time. In 2003, he went to the hospital and never came back that school year. The interval since his Jan. 6 diagnosis allowed him to help pick a substitute, and to emotionally prepare himself and his class.
He hopes to finish his treatment by June and return to teaching next fall. Martin hopes that Mr. Sak will one day teach his first-grade son, too.
“He is a beloved character, for sure,” Martin said.