By Mike Brue
Sandy Puttbrese says she didn’t shed tears when, earlier this fall, a Mayo Clinic doctor told her about the uterine cancer that had spread to her ovaries. As she recalls it, her reaction surprised the physician.
“My doctor down at Mayo has never experienced a woman being told what I was being told and not cry – before me,” Puttbrese said she learned.
Her explanation: “The things that are happening to me don’t seem to bother me. . . . I wouldn’t say it was a shock. I have a lot of faith, and I just put it in God’s hands to try to take care of it.
“When I think of the kids is when I get upset.”
Puttbrese, 50, a home daycare provider for about 21 years in Grand Forks, is worried, even sickened by the very notion that her treatment for cancer will disrupt the lives and routines of her daycare children and their parents. She doesn’t want to create new stresses and concerns for them, she said. She was worried she might have to relinquish care of some children, especially once she began the first of six chemotherapy cycles. She began chemotherapy this week.
“They’re already beginning to sense that it’s not a normal routine of what we do,” she said of the children. She underwent a radical hysterectomy at the Mayo complex in Rochester, Minn., on Oct. 3, not even two weeks after she began experiencing strong stomach pains. “Surgery? They don’t understand that. They just want to be around me.”
A natural ‘little-people person’
Puttbrese’s reaction comes as no surprise to at least several parents whose children have been under her care.
“She doesn’t expect anything, and she doesn’t put herself before the kids,” said Jen Coddington, whose two boys, Logan, 4, and Braiden, 5 months, have been cared for by Sandy. Braiden is temporarily under different care while Puttbrese deals with a prescribed limit on how much she can lift.
Sandy “does so much for the kids,” Codding said, “that it’s unbelievable.”
Nikki Chine agrees. “She’s just naturally a little-people person,” said the Grand Forks woman, whose sons — Jaden, 7, and Jacob, 6 — have been at Sandy’s daycare since 2006.
To both Chine and Coddington, Puttbrese’s daycare occupation is not Sandy’s job but her joy, achieved with utmost passion.
“She really takes these relationships with these little people serious ,” Chine said. “Sandy genuinely enjoys the time to be with the kids. She’s very involved in the family lives. . . . She raises them like her own, I have a feeling. … It’s so much deeper for her than a 7-to-5 job.”
Puttbrese’s own son, Jared, now 25, was of daycare age when the family moved to Grand Forks in 1991. Prior to moving from California to North Dakota, Sandy had been a stay-at-home mom who provided daycare for other children. “I absolutely loved it,” she said. And still does. “I just love to see the excitement in the kids’ faces.”
Puttbrese, a native of the International Falls, Minn., area who earned a teaching degree from Bemidji State University, didn’t expect to take this particular path into education.
“I run my own daycare like a preschool. I actually am teaching them things,” she said. “They’re just so excited and willing to learn new things – and I just can’t get enough of it.”
For example, Coddington said, Puttbrese taught her son Logan, at age 3, how to write his name and started teaching him how to count. Now, at 4, his mom said, Logan “can count to over 100, knows his ABCs and is starting to learn how to read.” What does Logan think of Sandy? “ He loves her,” his mom said.
Puttbrese “works so hard with these kids,” Chine said. “When she could just do the bare minimum, she does much more.”
From little turkeys with glass-globe bodies and spider hats to Abe Lincoln masks with three-dimensional “beards” and framed hand molds, Chine noted a variety of crafts and other hands-on activities Sandy has helped her daycare children create. Some have ended up as year-round or seasonal decorations in her home. “You can see the time and quality put into them,” Chine said. “Sandy is phenomenal with crafts.”
“Every holiday she has something going on – and many other days, too,” Coddington said.
She recounted how Puttbrese’s daycare children played their own game during the recent Summer Olympics, “and she handed out medals to the kids.”
Chine said that even in freezing weather, Puttbrese is as likely to go to a daycare child’s soccer game as the child’s parents.
‘A part of our family’
“She always comes to all of our (family) events, too,” Coddington added. “(Logan’s) baptism. All of his birthday parties. . . .It doesn’t surprise me why we are so close. She’s just a part of our family. She’s always there for us. “
Puttbrese’s way with families is not to intrude or become overbearing, Chine said. “It’s not like she’s getting over involved,” she said, “but the parents gravitate to her. “
Chine says Sandy is quick to ask how she can help when her daycare parents are faced with tasks or projects. With a light-hearted joke, she has helped parents keep matters in perspective that she sometimes hears from their kids.
Chine noted Sandy’s Halloween celebrations, where the children wear their pajamas instead of costumes, “and the kids just love it,” Chine said.
“A lot of different families face different family challenges,” Chine said. “Sandy really is kind of that resounding, steadfast continuity for kids in changing times. . . . She’s so unbiased. She’s fair. She’s loving. She never stops worrying and praying for families. “
Puttbrese’s character quickly became evident back in 2006, when — shortly after bringing then-1-year-old Jaden to Sandy’s daycare – Chine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Puttbrese offered to take in 4-week-old Jacob without hesitation when Chine’s cancer surgery was scheduled, which considerably eased Chine’s stress and anxiety.
“It made it so much easier to go through it,” said the cancer survivor. “ I never had to worry about my kids. That was one area that I had peace.”
Later in that fall of 2006, Sandy gave a gift to Chine and her husband, Nol. It was a photo of baby Jacob, in a little holiday gift box, with brother Jaden – in what resembled a little suit and tie — right next to him. Puttbrese’s gift remains a treasured one, Chine said.
“We barely knew her at the time. . . . We quickly learned of her quick knowledge and genuine caring for the kids,” Chine recalled.
It’s now ironic, Chine said, that Puttbrese – now battling cancer herself – has remarked multiple times how sorry she is that she wasn’t more involved and more helpful during Chine’s cancer battle. “That’s amazing about her,” said Chine, whose perspective on dealing with cancer has been welcomed by Puttbrese.
“We came to know each other through daycare,” Chine said of Sandy, “but God really had a plan for us to have our paths cross.”
Puttbrese’s Mayo surgery was arranged shortly after her Altru Health System medical team in Grand Forks discovered a malignancy nearly six inches in length on one of her ovaries. Mayo’s medical team removed and checked more than 70 of the lymph nodes closest to Sandy’s cancer and found no more evidence of it having spread. Chemotherapy was prescribed in an effort to kill cancer cells that might be circulating in fluids in her abdomen.
Sunday’s big fundraiser
Chine organized the Nov. 12 fundraiser at Pizza Ranch on Puttbrese’s behalf, and both Chine and Coddington were among nine volunteers to work the event.
Sandy, who attended, “was just overwhelmed with gratefulness,” Coddington said. “She got really emotional toward the end.”
Next up is Sunday’s benefit – a spaghetti feed, bake sale and silent auction at the community center in Oslo, Minn., home of the American Legion post where Sandy is a Legion Auxiliary member. Sandy’s sister and brother-in-law, Connie and Bo Ruport, who live in Oslo, are chairing that benefit effort, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed with all the friends and family who have done things for me,” Puttbrese said recently. “And that’s just not my character, believe me. My character is giving to others. It’s just really hard to accept all of this. The friends who you don’t realize they care as much as they care. What people are doing for me is just amazing to me.”
That’s the kind of Sandy Puttbrese reaction that Chine and Coddington have come to expect – and what they and their children continue to experience.
“It’s not the pain with the chemo. It’s not the uncertain future” that’s hard for Puttbrese, Chine said. “It’s receiving help when she has such a huge heart for giving.”
The author, Mike Brue, is communications director for NDAD.
Donate online, by mail, in person
Donations to help cancer patient Sandy Puttbrese can be made online, using your credit card, at www.NDAD.org/fundraisers.asp. Click the “Give Online” button next to Sandy’s story and photo.
Donations also can be mailed to: NDAD, c/o Sandy Puttbrese Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make check payable to: NDAD / Sandy Puttbrese.
You also can bring a donation to the above address during NDAD’S normal business hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
About NDAD Community Fundraisers
NDAD-sponsored community fundraisers are conducted by friends and families of a person with a disability or a serious health challenge.
NDAD acts as custodian of the funds raised, which can be used to help the individual with medical and other urgent needs and expenses, including helping with doctor, clinic or hospital bills and paying pre-existing bills. NDAD allows the client to use the bank of his or her choice to hold all funds that are raised.
The community fundraiser service is offered free of charge by NDAD. All funds raised are spent on the client’s needs – in Sandy Puttbrese’s case, medical-related bills and essential day-to-day expenses. It’s a service NDAD has provided across North Dakota for the majority of its 37 years. References are available.
The service offers benefits in several ways. NDAD is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning any funds donated to NDAD qualify for a charitable donation and are deductible for donors who itemize. Funds donated to bank accounts that are not under 501(c)(3) status are not deductible funds.
Donations directly to a needy individual also may cause that person to lose eligibility for various public assistance programs that are based on income. With NDAD as fund custodian, the funds should protect eligibility for public programs. NDAD tracks all funds raised and expenses paid. The client, family member or representative can bring in the donation, and NDAD will provide the necessary accounting functions.
Approved bills must be submitted to NDAD, where they will be paid with donated funds — a service that can be of great relief to individuals or families dealing with overwhelming situations. If clients are at medical facilities out of town for long periods of time, it also can be a great convenience.
NDAD’s long reputable service in North Dakota also is a factor sometimes when potential donors consider a fundraiser sponsored by the organization.
Also, NDAD provides marketing and consulting expertise to help with fundraisers, including creation and copying of posters, letters or any other advertising items necessary for fundraisers.
Learn more about NDAD’s Community Fundraisers program by calling (701) 775-5577 or toll free 1 (800) 532-NDAD. Learn about other NDAD-sponsored fundraisers at www.NDAD.org/fundraisers.asp.