September 29, 2011
By Jennifer Willis
When runners take off on Saturday, Oct. 15, at the start of the Run to Fight Children's Cancer on the GCU campus, they will do so after a horn is blown by the honorary race starter, Olivia Baumgardner of east Phoenix.
To the casual observer, Olivia is just like any other 4-year-old. She goes to Prince of Peace Preschool, takes gymnastics classes, likes to play with her younger sister, Ella, and is obsessed with Disney princesses (her favorite is Sleeping Beauty).
But Olivia isn't a normal 4-year-old. She's dealing with something that no one - let alone a child - should have to deal with.
Olivia has cancer.
10.10.10 is a date that Gretchen and Mike Baumgardner, Olivia's parents, never will forget. Not because it's such a unique date, but because it's when Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.
"I had no clue what that was when the doctor told us," Gretchen says. "I had to think about it a second: 'Leukemia is cancer, right?' I didn't quite understand what I was being told."
Olivia Baumgardner is the honorary race starter for the GCU Race to Fight Children's Cancer on Oct. 15.
The Baumgardners had taken Olivia, then 3, to the emergency room at Phoenix Children's Hospital a couple days earlier, because an on-again, off-again fever she had been fighting for three weeks had returned.
"We thought she had a case of mono or a similar virus," Gretchen says. "But she was admitted that night and the diagnosis came back a couple days later, and we were just in shock."
The Baumgardners spent the next several days in the hospital with Olivia, learning everything they could about the disease and the treatment that she would undergo.
She was supposed to have six months of intensive weekly treatments before moving into a monthly maintenance pattern, but because she was a "slow responder," the intense treatments were increased to nine months.
"The first two months were the worst," Gretchen says. "The steroid shots were really intense the first 30 days and she became really swollen and weak. She barely left her room because she couldn't walk.
"She did come out for her grandpa's birthday, though. One month and 10 days after she started treatment, she walked into the living room (with my help) and helped him unwrap his presents. She was laughing and smiling. It was amazing."
Olivia has now moved into her maintenance phase. The port she had in her side to administer the intensive treatments has been removed, and she has to get treatment only once a month now. She will continue her monthly treatments, with an end date of January 2013 if everything goes according to plan.
The Baumgardners aren't completely sure how much Olivia understands about what has happened and what she's going through.
"I promised her I would never lie to her about any of this," Gretchen says. "We've talked about it here and there and I've tried my best to answer her questions when she has them. But when she has to go in for treatment, I can tell it weighs on her mind and she worries about it, so I don't tell her until the day of."
The family also tries to do things to keep the focus elsewhere. Olivia is back at school, which she loves, and Gretchen has started volunteering with children's cancer organizations such as the Children's Cancer Network, the beneficiary of the 5K and 10K races.
"When Olivia was in the hospital, she participated in a mini-fashion show that Children's Cancer Network put on," Gretchen says. "Then they asked her to be in a bigger fashion show at the Arizona Biltmore. After that, I met with Patti Luttrell, one of CCN's founders, about ways to help with CCN.
"I've always wanted to do charity work but have never had the push to take the first step. Going through something like this changes your whole perspective. Helping out takes the focus off of your own stuff. It feels good to help others and keep your mind off of your own issues."
Olivia has been chosen by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to have a wish granted, and now that she doesn't have her port anymore, the family is set to go to Walt Disney World in Florida.
"She is so excited," Gretchen says. "We all are. It will be nice to get away for a while, and the place where we are staying looks amazing. There are horses and ice cream 24/7. It's like a child's wonderland."
While there's never a good time for such a serious disease, Gretchen says there are positives to Olivia's age.
"She's old enough that she can tell me when she doesn't feel good or if something's wrong," Gretchen says. "But she's young enough that she's resilient and she probably won't remember much of it. And Ella is so young that she doesn't feel jealous or pushed aside from all of the attention paid to Olivia."
While Olivia might be too young to fully understand what's going on, she does know why the October event is important.
When her mom asks why they are participating, Olivia smiles shyly.
"We're doing the race for all the sick kids," she says.
Reach Jennifer Willis at 639.7383 or Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org.