An Education: 4-year-old Sage Ouradnik’s family finds incredible strength during her harrowing battle with cancer

Sage Ouradnik loves animals, running alongside her brothers in her backyard, eating macaroni and cheese and showing off her toy dolls.

The Ouradnik family, Scott, Kelley, Jett, Cutter and Sage, pose for a photo on the back porch of their home in Amidon. [Photo by Bryce Martin | For The Herald]
The Ouradnik family, Scott, Kelley, Jett, Cutter and Sage, pose for a photo on the back porch of their home in Amidon.
[Photo by Bryce Martin | For The Herald]
By BRYCE MARTIN | ND Group Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

Sage Ouradnik loves animals, running alongside her brothers in her backyard, eating macaroni and cheese and showing off her toy dolls. Despite her short, cropped hair, there’s nothing to suggest that she’s anything other than a typical four-year-old girl. Her spirit is lively, bubbling with energy and her smile is infectious.

But there’s a story behind that wide, bright smile.

Sage was diagnosed with leukemia on her third birthday. It was a devastating blow to her young family.

Scott Ouradnik, 39, and his wife, Kelley, 33, of Amidon have three children, Jett, 8, Cutter, 6, and Sage, their youngest who turned four on March 24. The family spent her birthday visiting the San Diego Zoo in California as a Make-A-Wish trip for Sage.

The inquisitive, seemingly fearless little girl and her family swam with otters, held an armadillo and an African porcupine, stood alongside kangaroos, fed a giraffe and enjoyed a much deserved family vacation from reality.

It was exactly one year earlier when Sage’s battle began.

Sage’s small body endured nearly a year of hard chemotherapy after her diagnosis. That treatment became less vigorous in January, at which time she entered a “maintenance” phase. Kelley compared this phase to a swimming pool: “You have to keep a swimming pool clean or all the bacteria is going to come back.”

Right now, Sage has no cancerous cells in her body that doctors can detect. She’s effectively in remission, but the maintenance phase will last until August 2016.

It is still a wearisome time for the Ouradnik family.

Sage’s first symptoms arrived abruptly, just before she could blow out the candles on her third birthday cake.

While the family was enjoying spring break at their home, the once energetic Sage became listless while horseback riding, something she loved to do. Kelley, a special education teacher at Bowman County Public Schools, said Sage seemed overly whiny and sensitive.

But Kelley didn’t over think it at that point. She attributed Sage’s attitude to going on the first horse ride of the season or perhaps she was just having a bad day.

After the ride, Kelley noticed Sage was sleeping a lot. Then she noticed bruising on her legs.

“She’s a go-getter,” Kelley said. “She runs with the boys.”

The bruises were easy to dismiss, but Kelley felt the need to check in with Sage’s daycare provider in Bowman, Leanne Lockert.

Lockert told Kelley that Sage is always running with the “big kids,” so it wasn’t a surprise if along the way she fell down and got bruised. It was a reasonable explanation and it helped end Kelley’s worry until later that night when a rash appeared all over Sage’s body.

It was after 5 p.m. so the medical clinics in Bowman were closed. Kelley ended up calling the Southwest Healthcare Services Emergency Room. The staff was concerned of a possible allergic reaction and asked Kelley how Sage was breathing — it was fine. Then the rash disappeared, as quickly as it came.

But the next day, March 23, brought more symptoms.

Sage had a constant bloody nose and again had no energy. Then the most peculiar symptom revealed itself: marks on Sage’s body that looked like what Kelley described as a hickey. She called the ER again and they were concerned, though it didn’t seem like something that warranted emergency care.

That was over the course of a weekend.

When Sage woke up Monday morning, her third birthday, the rash was gone and she had no fever so they took her to daycare.

Kelley called Lockert later in the day to check on Sage, but it wasn’t what she expected to hear. Sage had a 103-degree temperature.

Spurred by worry, Kelley dropped everything at school and took Sage to the West River Health Services Clinic in Bowman.

A doctor there informed Kelley that the hickey she noticed covering Sage’s body was something called petechiae, spots on the skin that result from bleeding, according to the Mayo Clinic. It could indicate a number of conditions.

The doctor then ordered some blood work on Sage.

“They left the room and we were in there forever,” Kelley said. “I remember that feeling. I was just freaking out.”

Kelley remembered taking Sage to the bathroom while they waited for the doctor to return. She walked into the hallway and passed the nurse’s station.

“Every single person who works at the clinic was there,” she said.

That’s when she noticed the panicked look on one of the nurses. “My gut hit the floor; I just knew something was wrong,” Kelley said.

The doctor returned and immediately explained that Sage needed to be transported to Bismarck for further tests because there were abnormalities in her blood. He told Kelley he had already spoken with a pediatric oncologist at Sanford Health in Bismarck and they were expecting her.

It was in that moment the realization hit. “I know what an oncologist is,” Kelley said. An oncologist is a doctor that specializes in the treatment of cancer.

They arrived in Bismarck a few hours later.

It was that evening, on Sage’s birthday, that they received the diagnosis. Sage had acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a type of leukemia that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow. It develops from cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell central to the immune system, according to the American Cancer Society.

ALL invades the blood and can spread throughout the body to other organs, such as the liver, spleen and lymph nodes. It does not normally produce tumors, as do many types of cancer. It is an acute type of leukemia, which means it can progress quickly. Without treatment, it can be fatal within a few months.

Sage’s specific type of leukemia affected her B lymphocytes, or B cells.

B cells protect the body from invading germs by maturing into plasma cells, which make proteins called antibodies. The antibodies attach to the germs, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which helps the immune system destroy them.

Doctors at Sanford told Kelley it was the most common and the most treatable form of leukemia, with a 95 percent survival rate.

“There’s a very good survival rate, but I don’t think of that,” she said. “When it’s my little girl, you think of the bad and the negative.”

When she arrived in Bismarck, Sage immediately had two blood transfusions and a spinal tap, often considered a painful procedure for a person of any age, let alone one who just turned three.

While Sage was undergoing her procedures, Scott and Kelley sat in the waiting room helpless and afraid. Together they cried for their little daughter.

Scott and Kelley were soon after faced with the decision on what to do next. They were bombarded with different possibilities and locations for treatment. Ultimately, the two decided to take their little girl to Sanford Health in Fargo for the beginning of her chemotherapy.

It was the beginning of a so-called journey that turned each of their lives upside down.

Scott went back to Amidon to be with the boys; Kelley didn’t return home for another month. She ultimately took a sabbatical after the diagnosis, but returned in January as an occasional substitute teacher.

It was Dr. Nathan Kobrinsky, a pediatric oncologist at Sanford Health in Fargo, who alerted Kelley to the gravity of Sage’s situation.

Kelley was busy planning Jett’s birthday party, March 28, from afar — calling on local mothers to possibly help Scott with the celebration — but Kobrinsky wasn’t keen on the idea. He asked her when Scott and their boys were coming to Fargo. She explained to the doctor that she wanted them to enjoy the weekend and “just try to be normal.”

“He said, ‘Kelley, your normal is no longer,’” she said. “Even though it’s Sage that has cancer, it’s a family battle and your lives will never be the same.”

That single, straightforward statement impressed greatly upon Kelley. And for that she was thankful.

So Scott, Cutter and Jett packed up the car and travelled to Fargo where they would be together as a family.

“I needed it more than I thought I did, having them there,” she said.

In June, Sage was allowed to return home to Amidon. She would continue to make regular, weekly trips to Fargo for internal chemotherapy. In the meantime, Sage received a chemotherapy pill that she takes orally at home.

It was obviously an emotional time for the family, but especially for Kelley. She would have conversations with her sons that no mother would ever want to have. One of the main questions they asked was why she couldn’t stay home with them. That left Kelley broken down in tears. She tried to explain to her sons that if Sage didn’t receive treatment, she could die.

“Imagine saying that to a young kid,” she said.

Caring for Sage over the next 11 months proved to be a painful, heart wrenching battle. No matter the hard road ahead, the doctors convinced the family that they would make it. Still, Kelley said it was one of the hardest times of her life.

For the first 30 days of treatment, Kelley said she sat and held Sage about 80 percent of the time. Every treatment that Sage had was more intense than what was typical.

She was put on steroids for 28 days, which messed with her behavior and led her to eating constantly. Sage gained a lot of weight during that time. Then she lost her hair. She didn’t look like the same little girl.

Kelley’s strength was put to the test.

“It kept me strong knowing that I have to be strong for her to get through this,” she said.

Sage was mainly sleepy and nauseous through most of the treatment. She also lost a lot of her muscle mass and was extremely fragile.

There was an incident later in Sage’s treatment when she and Kelley stopped at Wal-Mart in Mandan for a bathroom break during their long trek home from Fargo.

Sage became nauseous as they entered the store, which was packed with customers during the busy Thanksgiving season. As they were passing a random family, Sage began vomiting violently. It was all over herself and Kelley. She said they just sat in the bathroom and didn’t know what to do.

A similar incident occurred at Space Aliens, a family restaurant in Fargo. Sage never wants to go back, according to Kelley, as she solely identifies it as “the restaurant where I puked.”

Kelley said Sage, while aware that she has cancer, doesn’t talk about her leukemia. She has since only asked when her hair would grow back.

Sage now travels to Fargo once a month for chemotherapy that is introduced through her body’s port. A port is a small medical appliance that is installed beneath the skin through which drugs can be injected, usually with less discomfort.

Something they don’t look forward to is when it’s time for “back pokes.” The “back pokes,” as Kelley refers to them, are lumbar punctures through which Sage’s bone marrow is retrieved and then analyzed for cancer cells. Those often painful procedures are almost weekly.

Sage regularly visits Southwest Healthcare in Bowman for blood work to determine if she is healthy enough to travel to Fargo for treatments. If Sage’s blood count was good, they would go to Fargo for cancer treatment.

“If not, mommy will be home,” Kelley would explain to her sons.

Cutter would sometimes quietly tell Kelley that he hoped Sage’s blood was bad because he wanted his mother to stay home with him. One night his response caught Kelley by surprise.

Kelly explained that Cutter said, “I hope Sage’s blood is good today so you can go back to Fargo and she won’t die.” Having a five-year-old process such things and not necessarily understand them was difficult.

Those were the things that broke Kelley’s heart.

Kelley tried various coping mechanisms throughout the whole experience.

She bought a book written by a man who lost his young daughter to brain cancer. But she still hasn’t read it because she said she felt guilty — while the man’s daughter had no chance of survival, Sage does.

“It breaks my heart that another person had to go through this with basically no hope to have a healthy child at the end,” she said.

Robin Osendorf-Welch, a family friend, created a Facebook page in tribute to Sage’s battle. The page, Smiles Across the Miles, was a way the Ouradnik family could stay connected with their loved ones and provide details on Sage’s progress. It ultimately conjured a lot of support from friends, family and from people the family didn’t even know.

Members of the community then began hosting fundraising events. They sold bracelets, held a gun raffle, a medical fund, set up bake sales and much more. The Ouradnik family watched in amazement as their community, on its own, spread support for Sage and her family.

The couple had already forged deep community roots. Scott was born in Bowman and Kelley was born and raised in Amidon. Kelley’s sister, Codi Miller, was named last year’s Miss Rodeo North Dakota. They found within their community an expansive support network.

“The support I’ve felt has been huge and has carried me so far,” Kelley said.

While some people often become hesitant or politely shy away when support is offered—yet sometimes truly needed—Scott and Kelley are exceptions.

“When people ask, ‘Can we bring food? Can we help with the kids?’ we didn’t try to be proud or too tough,” she said. “We just say we’d love it, thank you, we need it.

“We can’t do it alone.”

It was announced last month that Sage and her family would serve as torch bearers for the luminary lighting ceremony during this year’s Relay for Life in Bowman, scheduled for June 26 and 27. They will bring a torch from offsite and up to the main stage where the lighting of the luminary bag candles will begin.

“(It) is a time to reflect and remember those lost because of cancer,” said Osendorf-Welch, who sits on the Relay for Life committee board.

Sage’s Relay for Life team was affectionately named, “Princess and the Divas.” Sage is considered “the princess” and a group of cancer survivors and friends make up “the divas,” including Kelley.

Sage is the epitome of a survivor.

Kelley said she never experienced a time when she thought Sage wouldn’t pull through. “(Sage) is stubborn and she’s a fighter. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when she’s 16, but right now I’ll take it.” She offered a nervous laugh.

But relapse is currently Scott and Kelley’s biggest fear.

It would be extremely dangerous if Sage were to relapse right now. The sooner she would relapse, if she ever did, the worse it would be. Two out of three children who relapse do not survive, she explained.

Compared to Kelley, her husband is a more reserved, calm person, as she admitted. She would become stressed about things that she couldn’t change or that didn’t matter. But that has changed since Sage’s diagnosis.

“Life’s a little more simpler now,” she said. “There are big pictures and small pictures. Take it one day at a time. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Kelley said she’s come to realize that she is stronger than she once thought. While people are quick to say, “I could never do that,” it is possible — it’s your kid, you can do it, she said.

When asked what the hardest part of everything has been, Kelley and Scott quickly offered the same answer: Being separated, in addition to the obvious devastation of having a child battle cancer.

“Right away, the hardest part was being away from Kelley and Sage,” Scott reaffirmed.

As Kelley became the sole caretaker for Sage, Scott took over primary responsibility for Cutter and Jett. The two learned new roles as parents. “It was an education,” he said.

Kelley summed it up. “Cancer sucks, but it’s still been an amazing journey,” she said.

The journey has also taught Sage. She now knows what she wants to be when she grows up. Between deep breaths after playfully running around her living room with her two brothers, Sage said, “I want to be a doctor.”

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