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Banding together

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006

"When you're feeling down, eat soup. Trust me."

That's just one piece of advice sixth-grader Kaitlin Serwatka recently received in a collection of well wishes from her classmates and teachers at Perrysville Elementary School in Ross.

But that's not all they've been doing for Kaitlin, 11, who's been out of school since being diagnosed with leukemia Nov. 29. In less than a month, they've raised nearly $1,000 for Kaitlin's family by selling bracelets with her name.

"I think it's amazing," said Kaitlin. "It's kind of hard to picture your sixth-grade friends doing all this."

Kaitlin's mother, Lois Serwatka, said she knew something was wrong with her daughter. Kaitlin was losing weight and looked pale. She was cold all the time. She had headaches and frequently was tired.

"I guess the clincher on it was that she would be out of breath just running up the stairs in the house," Lois Serwatka, 41, said.

Kaitlin's doctor knew with just a look that something was seriously wrong. A check of her blood confirmed it. Kaitlin said the news shocked her.

"One day everything's fine and the next day your whole life changes. Your priorities change," Lois Serwatka said.

Kaitlin has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, the most common cancer in children, said Dr. A. Kim Ritchey, chief of the division of hematology/oncology and bone marrow transplantation at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland. It is a cancer of the white blood cells. The cause is not known.

Those diagnosed with ALL might be tired and pale from a lack of red blood cells, have problems with infections because of a lack of white cells, and bruise and bleed easily from a lack of platelets.

Today, about 99 percent of children diagnosed with ALL go into remission, and 80 percent are cured, Ritchey said. In 1950, there was no chance of survival.

"In the last half century, we've made incredible progress," Ritchey said.

Kaitlin's treatment, now under way, consists mainly of chemotherapy and blood transfusions on an outpatient basis. She will most likely not need a bone marrow transplant.

Making the bracelets was the idea of Kaitlin's friend, sixth-grader Maggie Brink, 11. The bracelets include orange beads, the color for leukemia awareness, beads with hearts for hope and beads with letters that spell out Kaitlin's name. The students make each by hand, threading the beads onto elastic string in three different sizes.

They've sold more than 300, asking for a $2 donation, and often receiving much more. They've gone beyond Perrysville Elementary, proving popular at North Hills High School, which surprised Maggie.

"It's really amazing they would want to help out to raise money for Kaitlin, to help her family," she said.

Lois Serwatka is overwhelmed by the support her family is receiving. In addition to the bracelets, volunteers have brought the family dinners, Kaitlin's classmates dedicated their Christmas play based on "A Christmas Carol" to her and a blood drive is being held in her name.

"To know there are people out there that care that you don't even know... you never expect this. It just blows you away that they're all wanting to help. It brings me to tears there's all these people who want to help," she said.

Kaitlin said she kind of likes being out of school. She likes social studies and hates math, but misses her friends. She wants them to know she is OK.

"Thank you for everything," she said.

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