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Perham girl deals with mystery illness

Gabby Rothwell and her mother, Sara Sullivan, at their home near Big Pine Lake on Tuesday. Gabby, also pictured below, has been upbeat throughout her ordeal. “She’s just a tough little girl,” her mother said. JOE BOWEN/FOCUS

Gabrielle Rothwell has been battling a series of health problems, ranging from an immune system deficiency to arthritis, all of which her doctors believe may be caused by a rare, currently-undiagnosed underlying disease or cancer.

Through it all, though, the 11-year-old, better known as Gabby to her friends and family, has remained relentlessly positive and upbeat.

“She goes through life with a smile, as you can see in her pictures,” her mother, Sara Sullivan, told the Perham Focus newspaper.

“She teaches those around her to be thankful and to focus on all that is good. When I talked with her about the upcoming bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy, I told her she would most likely lose her hair, to which she replied, ‘Then we better get some fun new hats!’”

The transplant and chemotherapy are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gabby’s treatments.

She receives blood transfusions roughly every 10 days due to Aplastic Anemia, and takes more than 10 medications per day, including five insulin shots for diabetes, with which she was diagnosed last July.

Since last winter, she has been confined to a wheelchair after breaking both legs, leading doctors to believe she may have Osteogenesis Imperfecta, better known as “brittle bone disease.”

“She hasn’t complained once about not walking,” her mother said.

Due to the increasing complications to her daughter’s health, Sara created a Facebook group to keep Gabby’s friends and relatives up-to-date on her condition.

“I thought it would be kind of neat to have a bunch of people rally around her while she’s going through all this medical stuff. It’s mostly my friends on Facebook and some people in the community. It’s extended to people in different states and different countries,” she said in a phone interview.

Gabby’s story quickly spread online, and now, two months later, the group boasts nearly 800 members.

“A lot of them don’t even know her; the majority probably don’t even know her,” Sara explained. “I guess it’s just word of mouth. She’s kind of a medical mystery and her story kind of touched a lot of people’s hearts.”

Currently, the Facebook group, called Gabby’s Gang United As One, exists to support Gabby and provide updates on her health and the procedures she undergoes. In the future, Sara would like to utilize the group for fundraising.

“After (Gabby) gets healthy from her bone marrow transplant, I would like to set up some drives for giving blood donations,” she said.

The donations would support, which paired Gabby with her soon-to-be bone marrow donor.

In addition to moral and, eventually, monetary support, Gabby’s Gang is trying to organize a “flood” of cards for her birthday on August 15, when she will turn 12.

“She has a very rough road ahead with her bone marrow transplant,” wrote Denice Phillips-Kunze, who runs the Facebook page and is a neighbor of the Rothwells.

“If any of you are willing to send her a birthday card in the mail, I know she would be so thrilled!”

In addition to cards, Phillips-Kunze hopes Gabby’s supporters will send arts and crafts supplies that she can use at a desk or in bed.

Gabby was shy about her hobby, but said she likes to work with clay.

Sara and Phillips-Kunze had tried to keep the birthday cards and presents a secret until Gabby’s birthday, but once the goodies started streaming in, the cat was out of the bag.

Cards and arts and crafts supplies can be sent to Gabby Rothwell at 46396 Grand View Drive in Perham.