‘It doesn’t matter, it’s my son’ | Community fundraises for student ahead of risky surgery

Beloved student at Heritage High School gets support from his community following a medical diagnosis.
Beloved student at Heritage High School gets support from his community following a medical diagnosis.
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 7:21 PM EST
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BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) - An East Tennessee high school student is battling a tumor the size of a grapefruit and is headed for a risky surgery next month.

In the meantime, the community is rallying around him and his family.

“Everybody loves him, he’s a special kid,” said Donald Pendley.

Donald Pendley’s son, Zack Pendley, is a 21-year-old special needs student at Heritage High School in Blount County. He said his son is like any other high school student.

“He loves his Simpsons, he loves YouTube, he loves Star Trek,” Donald Pendley said about his son.

Donald Pendley said his son has a girlfriend and a positive outlook on life. But in April 2021, a trip to the doctor changed everything.

“The doctor came out and said, ‘We need to show you something on the screen,’” Donald Pendley said.

The doctor showed him an x-ray, revealing a 96-millimeter tumor near his stomach and wrapped around his spine.

“The past year has been us trying to find someone to take care of the tumor,” Donald Pendley said.

That has been challenging. Because of the size and location of the tumor, Donald Pendley said many surgeons have declined to perform such a difficult surgery. But, the family has finally found a surgeon willing to give it a shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston next month.

Grace on Wings, a charity organization, is going to fly Zack Pendley to Houston and keep him in a hospital bed the entire time, which will cost more than $13,000. Then, there’s the cost of the surgery itself.

“And I’m sure it won’t be cheap. It doesn’t matter, it’s my son,” Donald Pendley said.

The community is stepping in to help them out. Heritage High School is selling Zack Strong t-shirts, and they’re taking donations. All of the money goes to the Pendley family.

“His medical needs are great right now,” said Jed West, Principal of Heritage High School. “He’s having to go through a lot with medical challenges. And with that, we wanted to try and find a way to help and best support them.”

It’s been working. West said they’ve raised thousands of dollars.

“Just seeing everybody help out, it means a lot,” Donald Pendley said.

As for Zack Pendley, his message to the community for all the support is simple, “Thank you.”

Heritage High School is collecting donations on its website. The Zack Strong t-shirts are available if you call the school’s main office at 865-984-8110.