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Federal Way community helps family as little girl fights leukemia
The first sign of leukemia was the bruising that crept up 6-year-old Sienna’s legs.
Her dad and stepmom, Josh and Janette Braun, noticed it but chalked up the cause to bike pedals. She was learning how to ride.
But the second sign was what did it.
Two weeks after the bruising, Sienna went on a field trip to the zoo and Janette Braun was one of the chaperones.
“It was kinda odd because her exact words were ‘my body doesn’t feel right,’” Janette Braun said, adding that they figured it was just the flu.
Her family decided it was time to go the emergency room after her temperature rose to 103.9 and her dad noticed little red dots on her arms called petechia - a symptom of leukemia.
There at St. Francis Hospital, the family would spend the hours of the night having Sienna do countless tests and blood work before being blindly sent to Seattle Children’s Hospital for more tests.
“We were [at Children’s] for about two hours total before they finally told us what was going on,” Josh Braun said, noting the time was 5 a.m. “They told us she had [acute lymphoblastic leukemia].”
The next eight days were spent at Children’s trying to figure out the cause of the infection Sienna had caught. Doctors gave her a round of chemotherapy, steroids, antibiotics and she was given a port and her nasogastric tube.
“It was like five different medications twice a day that she was taking,” Josh Braun recalled.
But somehow during those eight days, before Sienna was allowed to go home, a family friend set up a gofundme.com account.
Her stepmom went to Silver Lake Elementary to let the office and teachers know Sienna wouldn’t be returning for the end of the year but she was surprised to find out they already knew. Not only did they know, but members of the PTA organized a bake sale during the kindergarten choir concert and all the funds would go to the family.
“Some lady baked 150 cupcakes and they had so much baked goods donated that just from the evening show of the kindergarten choir and after school the following day, they raised $1,990,” Janette Braun said in awe. “And then, to top that off, a third grade teacher matched it out of her own pocket - a third grade teacher wrote us a check for $1,100.”
The PTA also organized a coin drive at Buffalo Wild Wings where 10 percent of all sales (excluding alcohol) was donated.
Before they knew it, the community had rallied thousands of dollars to help them out.
“The financial help is amazing but what affects our family the most is how every single family and staff member has reached out in one way or another to show us support,” Janette Braun said in an email.
Silver Lake Elementary PTA co-president Julie Halpin said organizing the fundraiser to help the family was an obvious decision.
“It feels like a no-brainer to me in the sense that we are all at the school and we all have kids,” Halpin said. “I guess you just can’t imagine if it were to happen to your family or your children. You see somebody that needs help and your natural reaction is to help.”
Halpin said she sometimes substitute teaches and has been in Sienna’s classroom for a couple of hours before Sienna had to quit school. Also, her daughter was in kindergarten and would play with Sienna at recess occasionally.
“It just feels like if my family needed help, I would want somebody to step up to help too,” she said.
The Braun family currently has about $6,800 in donations.
The money allows Josh Braun, the primary breadwinner, to take time off work so he can be there for Sienna as she reclaims her health. It also pays for the thermometers, sanitizers, soaps, masks, air filters and the regular trips to the hospital - about $125 a week in gas for their V8 engine. Initially, Sienna had to go to the hospital every 48 hours to ensure her numbers were where they needed to be. Her blood platelets were under 10,000 - the normal count is about 150,000.
The school was helpful in having a tutor come out to Sienna’s home before she graduated kindergarten.
“Her teacher jumped right all over it so she [was] coming twice a week along with other teachers,” Janette Braun said. “All these teachers keep sending messages,’Can we come see her,’ and they’re just so hands on, it just amazes me.”
With a survival rate of about 90-95 percent, Sienna’s technically cancer free and in remission but there’s still two-and-a-half more years of treatment to catch the “hidden” cancer cells.
Josh Braun said the hardest part has been watching her go one day running around like his “typical little Sienna” and then later watching her have trouble go up and down the stairs because of low energy.
“She wasn’t a big fan of losing her hair, that was the hardest part,” Janette Braun said. “She’s been amazing, I don’t think I could have handled it as well as she has.”
Janette Braun said many of her daughter’s classmates also had a tough time seeing Sienna when she went to visit the school.
“… Her classmates came in and a couple of them were really upset, a couple of them started crying,” she said. “They said, ‘When I think about Sienna at night I cry and it makes me sad,’ and I said, ‘That’s OK to cry, she’s going to be OK.’ They worry about her, they ask about her all the time and they all have these bracelets that we made that say Sienna Strong.”
Josh and Janette Braun say the family finds comfort in knowing Sienna’s aunt Margie is watching over as a guardian angel.
Margie Walter lost her battle with triple-negative breast cancer in 2012 when her liver started to fail while vacationing in Hawaii. Fortunately, she was able to fly home in a private jet with medical staff through $60,000 raised by friends and family.
She passed away the afternoon she arrived home surrounded by friends and family.
“She’s watching over,” Josh Braun said of Margie, his sister. “[Sienna] loved her auntie Margie. When she was losing her hair we were able to show pictures of her auntie with her bald head and we were able to show her pictures of her when her hair was growing back.”
Janette Braun said the situation has brought her large family of five children closer together.
“My oldest daughter, who’s 18, while Sienna was in the hospital, she was helping pick up and drop off the other two boys and fixing dinner and the boys were helping out around the house and they all just stepped up and I think it pulled us together,” she said. “If you have to find something positive about it, it pulled our family closer.”
Although shy to speak, Sienna’s looking forward to plenty of backyard camping and marshmallow roasting this summer with her dad, getting her custom real-human-hair wig, being able to hold her new bearded dragon pet, and returning to school as a first-grader some time next fall.
And eventually, after she’s finished the two-and-a-half years, a trip to Disney World is a big possibility, which would be provided by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Braun’s next fundraiser will be from 4-10 p.m. on June 28 at Carriage Square Sports Bar and Grill in Kent. Seahawks, Husky and Mariners tickets have been donated for the raffle, along with backstage tour orchestra seats for the Nutcracker. A silent auction and Sienna Strong support bracelets will also be available at the event.