Wichita, Kan. – Newman’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) hosted its first ever Halloween 5k Fun Run with the Wichita chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation that will raise money to grant the “wishes” of children with life-threatening illnesses. SAAC Director Maureen “Mo” Rohleder said SAAC has hosted similar events the last two years around Christmas time called the “Ugly Sweater Run,” but they chose to move the run to October because no one likes to run in the cold.
“It’s hard to get people out in the ice and snow,” she said.
Rohleder said this year they had around 100 people participate in the Fun Run, which is a substantial improvement from the previous years when only about a dozen people showed up. Rohleder said Heartland Conference universities are required to raise 600 dollars a year in charitable contributions, and the boost in attendance will no doubt help them reach that goal. This year, Rohleder said, they met and exceeded their goal of 600 dollars.
The money they raise will go to the Wichita Make-A-Wish Foundation who grants the wishes of children like Director of Alumni Relations Sarah Cundiff’s 9-year-old daughter Julianna, who was recently diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disease in which her bone marrow stops producing all three types of blood cells.
Cundiff said in July Julianna started to feel very fatigued and refused to get out of bed for three days. Cundiff thought her daughter might just have a bad case of the flu, until July 24 when things got really bad.
“You could see her heart beating – visibly see it,” Cundiff said. “Her red blood cells were completely depleted, and they said if she was an adult it would have been a cardiac arrest.”
Cundiff said they rushed Julianna to the hospital and after four days a bone marrow biopsy came back that determined she had aplastic anemia.
“It’s been a whirlwind for a few months,” Cundiff said. “Now she’s on a treatment plan. She takes a heavy does of ciclosporin. That’s a pretty toxic drug that suppresses her immune system from attacking her bone marrow.”
Cundiff said one great consolation for her daughter is that she doesn’t feel ill, just fatigued, and that the only real side effect she seems to be experiencing is hair growth.
“It’s interesting because it’s the opposite of chemo. She is getting a lot of hair,” Cundiff said.
In the next few months, if the ciclosporin works and Julianna’s bone marrow begins to produce blood cells, she won’t need further treatment, Cundiff said. In the meantime, she has to receive blood transfusions every few weeks to keep her from getting seriously ill.
“I’ve lost count of how many she’s had already,” she said. “But she’s had enough.”
Cundiff said her young daughter has taken all of the long days in and out of hospitals in stride.
“She’s a little trooper,” Cundiff said. “During all of this, she has not once asked, ‘Why me?’.”
If the ciclosporin doesn’t work, Julianna will have to receive a bone marrow transplant.
Cundiff said Julianna’s pediatric hematologist said her numbers are definitely going in the right direction, though they won’t know for sure until around December sometime.
She said the Wichita chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as the love and support of friends, family and strangers has really helped them through this trying time.
“The Make-A-Wish Foundation has been a huge silver lining in all of this,” Cundiff said. “There are so many blessings, to be honest.”
Make-A-Wish is currently working on granting Julianna’s wish to swim with dolphins. Cundiff’s friends have helped provide meals as well as repainting Julianna’s bedroom. Many of Julianna’s classmates, as well as friends of the Cundiffs, participated in the Fun Run on Wednesday.
“I put it on Facebook and invited 500 friends, because it wouldn’t let me invite any more,” said Cundiff.
Rohleder said that it helped a lot that Cundiff spread the word to her friends, and that the funds they raise will go to the Kansas chapter, which will help grant Julianna’s wish
Cundiff said before Julianna was ever diagnosed, she would participate in many Leukemia Society events to help raise money for friends with the blood cancer, which is similar to aplastic anemia.
“I think I did 12 half-marathons and four full marathons to raise money for the Leukemia Society,” she said.
Cundiff said in an email that many of the friends she has helped support over the years attended the Fun Run, including Jason Knoff, who won first place in the race.
“Julianna’s nurse, Kim Rosen, also came out to run, along with a few great alumni,” Cundiff said.
Cundiff said she could not begin to express her appreciation for the event, as well as the “amazing expression of care and concern for Julianna..”
Prizes were awarded to the runners with the best times, best costumes, best running group, and best pumpkin carving. The first place male runner was Knoff and the first place female runner was Allison Bush. Best costume went to a Rodeo Clown, second place went to Napoleon Dynamite, and third place went to the NU Volleyball team as the complete cast of “Toy Story.” Best pumpkin carving went to Lucas Schauer. Best running group went to “Julianna Cundiff and the Tutus,” a group of her friends and family who wore green and gold tutus.
Credits: Hank Griggs contributed to the feature image and Lauren Spencer contributed to the story.