The Good Fight
Sophomore refuses to let brain cancer hold him back
April 20, 2017
There’s a certain feeling that you get when someone is looking at you, when you’ve been picked out from the crowd. It’s often subtle, and you might feel it for only a moment, but it’s a feeling that still can’t be denied. Sitting in the front row of the Austin Convention Center during South by Southwest, sophomore Townes Hobratschk felt it—former Vice President Joe Biden was looking at him.
“It was like he was talking to me,” Hobratschk said. “Then he was talking about the effects of chemotherapy he said, ‘You know how that is, right?’ And he looked directly at me at pointed at me.”
On May 13, 2016, Hobratschk was diagnosed with brain cancer, the same disease which took the life of Biden’s eldest son Beau two years ago. Since his son’s death, the former vice president has made it his mission to end cancer.
At the SXSW panel, which focused on cancer funding and research, Biden said that, “Your generation can be the first to go through life with a different understanding of cancer as a preventable and controllable disease.”
Biden certainly has lofty goals, but he doesn’t let that distract him from supporting and recognizing those affected by cancer.
“After the speech [Mr. Biden] came down from his podium,” Hobratschk said. “He was doing the meet and greet with everybody, and then he got to me, and he said, ‘Come over here, boy. Let me give you a hug.’ And he gave me this big ol’ hug. He did that. It was the best thing. Then he said, ‘When you’re done with all this, come up and visit me.’”
One day after his diagnosis in May of last year, Hobratschk underwent brain surgery to remove his tumor and spent four weeks in the hospital recovering. He then started chemotherapy treatment and has been working constantly ever since to regain his strength. After almost a year, Hobratschk will be “done with all this” in the near future.
“I only have four months left of treatment, so I said [to Mr. Biden], ‘OK, see you in four months!’” Hobratschk said. “And he was like, ‘Wait, really?’ We kind of caught him off guard there. But I actually meant it; we might really go up there when I’m done with all of this in four months, but I don’t know.”
It would be incredibly lucky to be able to meet former Vice President Joe Biden twice in a year, but Hobratschk had pretty good luck to even meet him once.
“My mother made a post on Facebook saying that we really, really wanted to go see [Biden’s speech] and as luck would have it, one of our friends knew the right people,” Hobratschk said. “Our friend just contacted these people and they said, ‘Oh, OK, well we’ll just give you SXSW music passes and platinum passes.’ We got the best passes and everything, we even got to go to the front lawn right before [the speech] started. It was unbelievably lucky.”
Waking up from surgery 11 months ago, though, Hobratschk wasn’t feeling so lucky.
“I was coming off anesthesia while on high doses of steroids, and I couldn’t see, so I was terrified,” Hobratschk said. “Because of where the cancer was, it affected my vision when they cut [the tumor] out. That’s why I have to go through radiation and chemotherapy because they can’t cut all of it out. It’s not like a kidney tumor. Kidneys aren’t as important as a brain. If they cut out too much of your brain—well, it probably wouldn’t end too well.”
During his recovery, a group of some of Hobratschk’s closest friends, including sophomore Finn Corbett, went to visit him in the hospital.
“It was shocking, for sure, because the last time we had seen him he was running around at lunch with everybody else, and he was fine,” Corbett said. “It was cool to get everybody back together again, but at that point he was probably at the worst of it. He wasn’t very mobile yet, so we kind of had to walk him around and stuff. But it was good to see him, for sure.”
Brain surgery left Hobratschk very weak and without some abilities many of us take for granted, but that hasn’t kept him down for long.
“[My abilities] are slowly coming back,” Hobratschk said. “Today I was able to practice my bass guitar. When I first got out of the hospital, my hands, for some reason, would just randomly start moving or waving around. It’s definitely been a journey, getting to where I am now. Now I can do tasks with my left hand and my vision is slowly, slowly improving. Now I have a pair of glasses and they have a lens in them called a prism lens, and it reflects the light in a different direction so it goes into my eye different, so I can see clearer.”
Although Hobratschk still isn’t well enough to attend school—he is visited by a homebound teacher who helps keep him up to speed—world history teacher Greg Anderson makes sure he isn’t left out.
“For history class, I Skype into Mr. Anderson’s class and that honestly makes me 10 times happier because [world geography with Mr. Anderson] was my favorite class last year,” Hobratschk said.
Despite being separated from the class by a screen, Hobratschk has been able to participate and socialize with peers like any other student.
“I had never used [Skype] before, but it’s a very easy process,” Anderson said. “So he Skypes in, and he actually participates in the class and asks questions and talks to students before class just like anybody else. I think it’s been good for him to have a normal part of his day, a routine. It’s like he’s here. He’ll just start talking like anybody else, bring up a point, ask a question or have a funny story.”
World history class isn’t the only thing that Hobratschk has had to go the extra mile to be able to participate in.
“Five weeks after my surgery, a week out of the hospital, the band was taking a trip to Carnegie Hall,” Hobratschk said. “My family had already paid for the Carnegie trip, and the company couldn’t refund our payments after a certain amount of time. We basically made it our goal when I was in the hospital to get me to Carnegie Hall. Our motto for a while was, ‘pancakes, waffles, Carnegie Hall,’ because I also wanted to get home and make pancakes and waffles. And sure enough, five weeks after my surgery I got to go to Carnegie Hall.”
Like any other band student, Hobratschk had to learn the music he was going to perform at Carnegie, but unlike other band students, he first had to figure out how he was going to be able to hold his instrument.
“Ms. Nelson, the band teacher, brought in a tuba to the hospital so I could look at the music before I went to Carnegie Hall and so we could figure out how I was going to hold it,” Hobratschk said. “We ended up just put-
ting a strap around the tuba so I could hold it up. I just picked up that tuba, and there I went. I just played it, which was nothing short of a miracle. So the week I got out of the hospital was the week that I started treatment. They just gave me some chemo and sent me off to New York.”
Sophomore Harrison Smith, who is also in the McCallum band, has known Hobratschk since kindergarten. Even though the two have been friends for a long time, Hobratschk’s diagnosis has revealed parts of his personality that Smith had never known.
“I’ve learned how charismatic he is towards everybody,” Smith said. “He doesn’t need to be walking around to draw people to him.”
Hobratschk’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery have shown his friends more than just the strength of his character; they have shown them the uncertainty that comes with each new day.
“It can happen to anyone, you know?” Corbett said. “I mean he’s definitely one of my closest friends, and seeing it happen to him, what could’ve stopped it from happening to me, or another one of my friends? So it was definitely eye-opening in that department. That dude is tough, man. I don’t know if I’d be able to pull it off if I were in his shoes.”
From his diagnosis all the way through his treatment and recovery Hobratschk has been resilient, and it’s his outlook on his situation that has allowed him to maintain a positive and mature outlook.
“With diseases, if you pull the right strings in the right places and are wise about it, it doesn’t have to hold you back, not even cancer or anything,” Hobratschk said. “More people need to know that, instead of just wallowing in fear all the time.”
Instead of fear for the present, Hobratschk and those closest to him have hope for his future.
“I can’t wait to see him back in the school again,” Anderson said. “Hopefully it’ll be next school year. He’s already come in a few times to drop off work and say hi. He’s growing hair again. I just can’t wait for him to have his normal life back. He’s a good guy.”