Wineka column: For a change, folks now looking after Steve Holland

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 24, 2014

ALISBURY — Steve Holland spent an entire working career putting his customers first. Now as he tackles lung cancer, Holland finds himself the No. 1 priority, and he’s not used to it.
When something like this happens, pretty much out of nowhere, a person takes stock. Holland, a man who almost always carries a conversation, loses his voice for a moment and, from his living room recliner, motions out toward the kitchen where there’s a counter full of photographs.
Mary Holland, his wife, comes to a quick rescue as to what Steve is trying to say. It’s pretty basic: The most important things in life aren’t things. The greatest gift is family — the people in those photographs.
That’s about the only time Steve Holland, 62, gives in to his cancer. He wants his friends and customers to know he’s feeling great and even is a bit embarrassed that he’s not sicker, given his four rounds of chemotherapy and 10 trips to the hospital for radiation.
“I’ve really been lucky,” he says.
You might know Holland. Until this detour, he worked almost 35 years as an electrician and heating and air-conditioning man for A.V. Crawford & Son.
Holland was the guy crawling under houses or balancing on the beams in your attic. He was the friend you would call early in the morning or late at night if your central air-conditioning went on the fritz. No matter the hour, Holland would come, because he knew you just had a small baby or were looking after an elderly parent.
Through Crawford & Son, Holland also was the primary HVAC man on all of the houses put up by builder Ken Trexler during the boom construction years in Rowan County. Over several years, Trexler was constructing about 45 houses a year, and Holland’s name and telephone number were taped or written on every fuse box in case the owner had a problem with his heat or air.
“My number’s on a lot of panel boxes,” Holland says, ticking off subdivisions such as Plantation Ridge, Glen Heather, Cameron Glen, Autumn Woods and Ashley Downs.
Holland always has followed a philosophy that you live your epitaph every day. What would he want his to be?
“That I took care of my customers,” Holland says.
This is the one other time he chokes up a bit.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do Saturday,” he says.
Steve Holland pleaded that the focus of this story be on St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, not him. The church is having a “Cruise n’ Barbecue” Saturday, and all the proceeds will go toward helping the Hollands with their medical bills.
On an invitation from Jim and June Webb 34 years ago, the Hollands first attended St. Paul’s and fell in love with the congregation. In the decades since, Steve has served several times on church council and taught Sunday School. Mary sings in the choir.
“The most welcoming congregation you could ever meet,” says Mary, a retired teacher.
Dana Bost of the St. Paul’s congregation visited the Hollands one day and told the couple of the church’s plans to dedicate the Cruise n’ Barbecue to them. The Hollands were humbled, but Steve called Bost the next day and asked why Chloe Monroe couldn’t be included, too.
Monroe is a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a St. Paul’s member and graduate of Carson High. Last November, Monroe found out she has acute myeloid leukemia and was scheduled for a bone marrow transplant in Chapel Hill this month.
St. Paul’s Women, the congregations and others donated $4,000 toward a bone marrow screening and sign-up registry available Saturday at the barbecue.
Despite the Hollands’ protests, Bost explained the Cruise n’ Barbecue otherwise was for them.
The outpouring of support for Steve Holland has been tremendous.
“I don’t know how many get-well cards I’ve gotten, but we are approaching 300,” he says.
The cards are coming from friends and customers, which are sometimes one and the same. He says he has heard from people across the county and into Mocksville, Lexington and Concord.
Last December, Holland had a coughing spell one morning and noticed he had coughed up some blood. He and Mary decided it was serious enough to go for an examination. Steve had given up smoking three years earlier.
“For Steve to go to a doctor — that’s not his thing,” Mary says.
The scans found spot on a lung, liver and backbone, so the chemotherapy started soon. Each round consisted of three days of receiving the chemotherapy, followed by a shot to help with bringing up his white blood cell count on the fourth day.
There were three weeks in between each round. Holland lost his hair. He felt tired but not nauseous. The pills his doctor gave him for nausea have yet to be opened.
Scans after the chemotherapy showed good progress. Some of the spots had gone, and the spots on his lung had decreased in size from 5 to 7 centimeters to 2 centimeters.
The radiation was a preventative step. The kind of small-cell, fast-growing cancer Steve has often heads toward the brain, and the radiation was meant to head that off.
At first, Steve thought he could be making some service calls and changing filters, but his doctor told him one bad case of the flu could do him in. The oncologist also advised Holland to stay away from church the weekends after his chemotherapy treatments unless he wore rubber gloves and a mask.
Steve is a North Rowan High graduate; Mary, Concord High. They met at Western Carolina University and have now been married 39 years.
Mary taught 20 years in Mount Pleasant and finished up her long career as an eighth-grade math teacher at Erwin Middle School.
Steve, a business major in college, first worked for H&R Block tax service, but after six months behind a desk, he knew he wanted a more hands-on, physical job.
He worked part-time for an electrical company, then met Vernon Crawford, who gave him a job in 1980. Holland showed a natural aptitude as an electrician: “I didn’t take the test but once,” he says.
The various certifications on heat pumps, refrigerants and heating and air-conditioning units followed. So did all those customers.
The family he and Mary cherish includes three children — daughter Abby and twin sons Matthew and Seth — and two grandchildren.
Holland said he felt drained and tired for quite a while during the chemotherapy, but these past three weeks he has the energy to get up and do things.
He lost his hair during the treatments, but his mustache has come back, and Mary reports that some very short, very white hairs are starting to make an appearance on Steve’s head.
Holland can’t say enough good things about the doctors and nurses at Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast, a second home this year.
The radiation left Steve with what looks like a sunburned dome. It has been itching and driving him a bit crazy lately. It also has been hot to the touch, prompting Steve to place a frozen pack of ice on top of his head one recent night.
A new scan in about two weeks will tell the Hollands where things go next.
“It’s been a journey,” Mary says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or