July 25, 2016

Partly cloudy

State softball: Game provides comfort for Sami Holzman

Sometimes Sami Holzman is angry. Other times she’s sad. A lot of the time, she’s not exactly sure how she feels — or even how she should feel.

But when the 16-year-old sophomore is playing softball for Medina, she is happy, relaxed, at peace — even if she’s also a nervous bundle of energy.

Donna Holzman, right, has battled serious health issues over the past several years, but today her family will concentrate on softball. Her daughter Sami, left, is a member of the Medina softball team. The Bees play North Canton Hoover in the Division I state semifinals. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY AARON JOSEFCZYK)

Today at 3 p.m., when the Bees take on defending Division I champion North Canton Hoover in a state semifinal game at Akron’s Firestone Stadium, No. 13 will be all that.

That the oldest of her three daughters will be having fun, that in that precise moment in time Sami will be a care-free teenager, will make Donna Holzman equally happy.

The time Donna’s heart stopped in November 2010? The coma induced by doctors for her own well being? The 24 straight days she spent in the Cleveland Clinic, while her daughters got themselves ready for school and packed their own lunches? The pacemaker she had to receive before she was allowed to go home?

For a couple hours, all that will be forgotten.

Ditto for the four tumors doctors discovered in Donna’s brain in February, after she complained about always being tired and a brain biopsy revealed she was suffering from central nervous system lymphoma. And the second four-week round of chemotherapy the 49-year-old just completed. And, most of all, any concerns about what the future holds.

This afternoon, Donna Holzman will sit next to husband Ron and cheer like crazy, while 14-year-old Jessie and 12-year-old Amanda, thrilled at the opportunity to get out of middle school early, will do whatever it is girls do at an older sister’s sporting event.

Blonde-haired, long-legged Sami, who spent most of the season on the junior varsity before finally being called up to the varsity, will bat seventh and serve as Medina’s designated player if coach Jessica Toocheck keeps the same lineup she had in the Bees’ two regional games.

Life, this afternoon, will be good.

“I love having a softball team I can go to when I’m stressed,” Sami said. “I love having a practice I can go to just to forget about things. Team dinners, stupid things like that, can take my mind off things for a few hours.”

Stupid team dinners? That’s teenage talk. Sami, the quietest of the Holzman’s three children, the one who tries to hold everything inside, knows stupid things like that have never been more important to her.

“Softball is an outlet for her,” Toocheck said. “She’s got all of us behind her if she needs anything, but she hardly ever talks about it with us. Softball can be the one place where she doesn’t have to think about things, so we’re trying to keep it that way for her.”


Donna Holzman’s heart problems in the fall of 2010 weren’t her first serious health scare. When she was 24, she had a large tumor in her chest that required three months of chemotherapy and radiation, treatment her doctors believe contributed to the incident 23 years later.

In October 2010, she contracted pneumonia and developed a very rapid heart rate, which led to her being hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic.

Ultimately, on Halloween night, or actually the morning after since it was 3 a.m., her heart stopped.

Ron rushed to the clinic and Donna was put into a coma for her own protection. After emerging from it several days later, she started working toward getting strong enough to receive a pacemaker.

It was up to Ron, a salesman for a roofing company who is able to do a lot of his work from home, to tell the couple’s three children what was going on.

“I was scared,” Sami said. “I was kind of freaking out, and I could tell my dad was freaking out, too. He was trying to keep his cool for us, but I could tell.

“I struggled. It was hard to take in. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to react.”

Active members in the community, especially when it came to their children’s many athletic endeavors, the Holzmans didn’t try to keep anything a secret.

Ron’s sister, Laura Moloney, started a CaringBridge journal. Meals started getting delivered to the family home. There were offers to help out with the girls, offers to assist Donna in her recovery and pages upon pages of kind words and well wishes.

Through it all, Sami didn’t miss any of her freshman year of high school. She had to start getting up a little earlier to make her own breakfast, pack her own lunch and help get Jessie and Amanda moving, but she battled through everything, just like her mother was doing.

“I had to help out more around the house and I still do,” Sami said. “We’ve balanced it out. Everyone’s had to do more.”

Finally, after a total hospital stay of 3½ weeks, Donna was strong enough to get the pacemaker and return home.

“I had a great sense of relief when she came home,” Sami said. “I knew things were going to be different, that she couldn’t do as much because she was so tired, but we tried to keep things as normal as possible.”

Extended family

The Holzmans thought they had survived the worst, but then more bad news hit. Early in 2012, Donna became increasingly tired and eventually underwent more tests. A brain biopsy showed she had four tumors and would need chemotherapy.

“My heart just dropped,” Sami said. “I was so angry and frustrated, and I still didn’t know how to respond.”

Should she scream at the top of her lungs? Should she ball her eyes out? Should she try to hold everything in, or should she punch the nearest wall and let out all her frustration?

Should she tell everything to close friends and teammates like Megan Paradise, Abby Knechtel, Vanessa Scoarste and Madi Tata, whom she had played with since her father coached the Medina Heat youth team, or should she spare them the details and answer only the questions they asked?

There were no right or wrong answers. In many ways, there still aren’t, but there is an outlet — softball.

“I played with Sami on the Heat for such a long time, and I became so close with the Holzman family,” Tata said. “Mrs. Holzman is one of the nicest moms I know. When I heard about her illness, it was shocking.

“We all care so much about the Holzmans and we would do anything for Sami, but she almost never shows that anything is wrong. She’s always strong, and I admire Sami for that. We just try to support her as much as we can.”

At home, the Holzmans have adjusted as best they can. It hasn’t always been easy, but friends and family have helped out in any way possible, while all the girls are blessed with great friends they can confide in.

Donna no longer drives, but Sami now does, so she’s been able to help get Jessie and Amanda to all their practices and games. When all three have a break from sports, which is rare, they head to the mall for some shopping.

There are many fun aspects to each and every day, numerous positive moments. Without turning everything into a major production, the Holzmans make sure to find them, to enjoy them, to cherish them.

“We’ve had two miracles already,” Donna said, referring to overcoming the tumor in her chest 25 years ago and the 2010 heart problems. “We’re just hoping for a third.”

In the meantime, the Holzmans carry on as best they can, as normally as they can, as happily as they can.

Because Donna tires easily, Ron has taken on many of the duties previously performed by his wife, who wants desperately to do more but simply can’t.

“Ron does everything for everybody,” Donna said. “He gets them everywhere they need to be. He’s taken over what I used to do. He’s always been involved, but it’s been amazing what he’s been able to do.”

This has not been lost on Sami, who now has a much deeper appreciation for the man who used to coach her youth softball team.

“It’s beyond amazing,” she said of how her father has handled the situation. “He figures out his work schedule, he goes grocery shopping, he assigns chores and does chores. I know he’s stressed out, but he does the best he can not to show it.”

The Holzmans, meanwhile, do the best they can to keep things normal, to enjoy the moment. This afternoon, that moment will mean watching their oldest daughter suit up for the biggest softball game in Medina history.

“One day my mom can be home, the next day she can be in the hospital getting chemo,” Sami said. “Everybody tries to appreciate each day we have together.

“I’m not one to throw my feelings out there. I try to keep everything inside and deal with things on my own, but I do know my mom’s gone through something like this before (and beaten it). Maybe she can do it again.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.