‘Super Sisters’ raise funds, awareness for pediatric cancer

By Kim Walter

WINCHESTER — On Wednesday evening, Brooke Rosenberg, 5, entertained her family with an original song.

“You can beat cancer with the help of your big sister,” she sang into a play microphone. “We can do it!”

The girl’s parents, Chris and Heather, and her older sister Caitlin, 8, smiled and clapped after the performance, knowing how special each moment is with Brooke.

In July 2010, the Rosenbergs were in a much less certain place.

Just before her second birthday, a few of Brooke’s preschool teachers noticed an unusual rash on her stomach and chest. Her mother inquired about the rash while at an ear infection follow up.

“Her doctor looked at it and wound up diagnosing her with petechiae,” said Mrs. Rosenberg. “It made me nervous. It wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t know the word … it was the way she said it.”

Petechiae occurs when capillaries burst and leak blood under the skin. To find the source of the problem, blood work was done. Results revealed a low platelet count.

The Rosenbergs tried not to be overly concerned, since the results could stem from an infection.

After further blood tests at the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders of Northern Virginia and Inova Fairfax hospital, Brooke was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, level M7.

Because she was facing such a rare and aggressive form of pediatric cancer, Brooke immediately began chemotherapy treatments. Her doctors explained that the 2-year-old’s best chance for remission and survival was a bone marrow transplant.

After some testing, the family learned that Brooke’s sister Caitlin, then 5, was a perfect bone marrow match. The girl had to give consent to undergo the procedure, but her parents wondered how she could make a well-informed decision at such a young age.

Mrs. Rosenberg said she and her husband did a lot of reading and research on the best ways to relay the information to Caitlin, who ultimately decided to endure the procedure with hopes of saving her little sister’s life.

One day, after visiting Brooke in the hospital, Caitlin and her father realized that their car’s battery was dead. They had to wait for assistance and a battery jump.

“After I explained what we were waiting for, Caitlin asked me if the battery jump would be like her bone marrow giving Brooke the energy and power to beat leukemia,” Mr. Rosenberg recalled. “That’s when I knew she got it.”

Brooke was transferred to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in November so she could prepare for the procedure and stay as healthy as possible. The sisters got to see each other once every three weeks, and goodbyes were filled with tears.

“It was scary to think that my sister might die,” Caitlin said. “So I had to do it for her. I wanted to make her better.”

Caitlin’s procedure took less than two hours one morning in November, after which the bone marrow was transferred to Brooke’s body. The first thing Caitlin said after waking up was, “I want to see Brooke.”

Mrs. Rosenberg remembers watching one daughter’s bone marrow drip through a tube to heal the other. She called it “amazing.”

During December, Brooke developed engraftment syndrome as her body attempted to reject her sister’s bone marrow. It put her in the ICU for more than a week.

The Rosenbergs remember depending on each other and the support of the staff at Children’s National.

“The nurses, the doctors, the technicians … they were like our family,” Mrs. Rosenberg said. “They took every concern we had seriously. Every opinion or question we had, mattered, and I had never experienced anything like that before.”

This November will mark three years since the transplant, and the sisters couldn’t be doing any better. Their parents said that Brooke is “healthy,” and will be considered completely cured in another two years. She’s shown no warning signs of the cancer returning.

When Brooke was sick, Mrs. Rosenberg remembers registering Caitlin for kindergarten. She said it was tough wondering if she would ever get to have those milestone experiences with her youngest daughter.

“We were afraid to think about the future then,” she said. “But now, it’s exciting. Both of our girls love every thing about life, and see good when other people can’t. It’s almost like they actually understand everything they’ve been through, and why they shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

On Oct. 5, the family will participate in the first Race for Every Child at Freedom Plaza in Washington to benefit Children’s National. Caitlin and Brooke decided to name their team, ‘Super Sisters’ — they will sport bright pink capes during the event.

Caitlin said she wanted to raise funds for the hospital that took such good care of herself and her sister.

“It’ll be fun to go out and see all the people supporting kids going through the same stuff Brooke went through,” she said. “People call me a hero, but those kids are heroes too.”

Brooke said she hopes the event will “make kids with cancer feel better,” and show them that “they can beat it, too.”

Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg said they couldn’t be more proud of their young daughters. They hope their story will raise awareness for pediatric cancer, as well as gain support for the hospital that helped so much during their time of need.

“Their care for others is the most beautiful thing,” said Mr. Rosenberg said of Brooke and Caitlin. “They both had to face a harsh reality at a young age, but because of it, they’ll have a special bond for the rest of their lives.”

To find out more about the Race for Every Child and how you can support Children’s National, go to “http://www.raceforeverychild.org”>www.raceforeverychild.org. To donate directly to the Rosenberg’s team, search “Super Sisters.”

Those interested in volunteering can go to volunteer.raceforeverychild.org.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com