When Caroline Potteiger was 3, she began having pain in her knees. Her mother, Sandy Potteiger, came home one day to find the babysitter rubbing Caroline's legs.
"She said, 'Caroline's knees are tired today,'" said Sandy Potteiger, who did not think much of it at the time.
A couple of days later, Potteiger noticed that Caroline was limping. Then, she watched as Caroline stood at the top of a jungle gym, seemingly paralyzed with pain, crying her eyes out and unwilling to move.
"I asked her what hurt, but she couldn't tell me what was wrong," said Potteiger.
Caroline began limping at school, and her teacher asked Potteiger if her daughter had suffered some sort of injury. She and her husband Greg Potteiger took Caroline to the doctor, but the x-rays showed nothing out of the ordinary. The doctor told them that it was probably just Caroline's way of acting out to get attention as there was a new baby in the house. However, two more weeks went by and Caroline went from limping to becoming totally incapable of walking.
"It was really quick," said Sandy Potteiger.
The Potteiger's took their daughter to Children's Hospital, but all of her blood work came back normal. A doctor at Children's Hospital told them the same thing that their other doctor had told them — that Caroline was more than likely vying for attention. Sandy Potteiger's father, who is also a doctor, insisted that Caroline see a neurologist. She did, but those tests also came back normal, and Caroline continued to get worse. The Potteiger's finally took Caroline to see an oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. When the doctors called Greg and Sandy Potteiger into a separate room, they knew they were about to get bad news.
"When they told us that she had leukemia, I was totally shocked," said Sandy Potteiger. "I mean, you have all this other stuff going on in your life, and all of a sudden none of it matters anymore — nothing else matters anymore. Your whole world just falls apart and everything just stops."
After the initial shock, Sandy Potteiger began blaming herself for her daughter's illness.
"I kept thinking, what did I do wrong? Did I clean too much when I was pregnant with her? Did I eat something I shouldn't have?"
CAROLINE WAS DIAGNOSED with a type of leukemia that is caused by outside environmental factors, but doctors assured Potteiger that there was nothing that she could have done differently, and that anything could have caused it.
"They think something may have happened when she was a fetus, like maybe I got a virus in my body that didn't affect me, but affected her," said Potteiger.
Caroline immediately began chemotherapy. For the Potteigers, the first six months were the most difficult, but eventually they fell into a routine.
"Every few days she would go in for chemotherapy, and over the course of the next year, it just became a way of life for us," said Potteiger. "She slept next to me every day."
One of the most difficult aspects of Caroline's treatment was the side effects caused by chemotherapy. The immune systems of children undergoing chemotherapy are completely destroyed, causing them to be susceptible to infections that can quickly become life threatening.
"If she had a fever at 2 a.m. we had to get up and rush to the hospital," said Potteiger. "There were a few scares."
When Caroline's hair fell out, she asked her mother if she had cut her hair.
"I didn't want her to panic, so I told her that I did cut her hair because I missed her being a baby and I wanted her to look like a baby again — and she accepted that," said Sandy Potteiger.
During Caroline's treatment, Sandy Potteiger was fortunate to be working out of her basement, with a team of employees to help her. She knows that if this had not been the case, she would have been forced to give up her job to take care of her daughter.
OVER THE COURSE of Caroline's treatment, Sandy Potteiger met many other children with leukemia. Not all of them were as fortunate as Caroline. In fact, Sandy Potteiger said that many of the children died from infections acquired as a result of weakened immune systems, rather than from their actual disease. She recalled being devastated when a nurse phoned to tell her that one little girl had died because her chemotherapy had created a hole in her stomach, allowing an infection to take hold.
"Going to her funeral was the worst thing I've ever been through in my life," said Sandy Potteiger.
Caroline Potteiger has been lucky. She is now 9 and has been in remission for three years. When Caroline finished her treatment, the Potteiger family moved to Great Falls, something they had been planning on doing just before she was diagnosed.
Caroline does not have many memories of being sick.
"I remember when I was getting better," she said.
Now that Caroline is doing well, the Potteigers have become actively involved in raising money for the Children's Cancer Foundation in Baltimore. Caroline is currently the poster child for the Children's Cancer Foundation at Giant in Reston. The Foundation holds an annual dinner gala in the fall, but Sandy Potteiger decided that she would also like to organize a fund-raiser that was family oriented.
"What I wanted to do was have an event that includes children," she said. "I am doing this for the children that passed away. We have been so fortunate with Caroline, so I want to give back in some way."
On Sunday, June 11, from noon until 3 p.m., a "Great Falls Family Picnic" will be held in the Great Falls Village Center. The price is $60 per family for tickets bought in advance, and $65 per family for tickets bought at the door. There will be entertainment sponsored by Party Central, face painters, balloon sculptors, jugglers, hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza. All of the proceeds will go to the Children's Cancer Foundation.
Sandy Potteiger said that she is particularly dedicated to raising money for the Children's Cancer Foundation because she truly believes a cure can be found.
"I hear doctors talk about how they can find a way to just treat the cancer in your body, rather than treating your whole body with chemotherapy, and if they could proceed and evolve their research, we could have a cure for cancer in the next 20 years," she said. "The problem is that government funding is at an all time low… so most of the support comes from private funding."
She is hopeful that the upcoming family picnic in the Village Center will, at the very least, raise awareness. Sandy Potteiger also has plans for more fund-raisers in the future.
"Eventually we'd like to have a golf tournament and maybe a fashion show," she said.