It started as a sore throat and mild fever on a Friday last December. By Sunday morning, 7-year-old Maria Serban was in such pain she couldn't get up from bed.
"She started to scream, 'Mommy, it hurts, it hurts,' " said her mother, Elena Serban, of South Elgin.
Maria, 7, a second-grader at Willard Elementary School in South Elgin, was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. A fundraiser to help her family with medical bills is Saturday in Elgin.
Maria was taken to one hospital's emergency room, was a patient for five days at a different hospital and eventually was transferred to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, suffering from high fever spikes and severe muscle and joint pain, Serban said.
At one point, Maria's inflammation was so severe she couldn't use her hands and could barely walk and talk above a whisper.
"It was very painful," her mother said.
These days, Maria -- who's been back in school since April -- is on a regimen of steroids and daily medication injections that mostly keep the pain at bay. However, the prognosis is uncertain, Serban said.
"Nobody knows why you get this, and nobody knows if it's going to start again or not," she said.
"I'm praying day and night for that, for these symptoms to not come back. Because she was in hell, and I don't want my child to be there again."
The family owes about $10,000, but more bills are coming before winter, which will be rough when work slows down for her husband, Constantin, a construction worker, Serban said. The couple also have a son, 4-year-old Victor.
Maria's mother worries about virus and bacteria susceptibility because the girl's immune system is suppressed by her medications. She was in the hospital for 10 days in June with a bacterial infection.
Still, Maria -- a sociable, easygoing girl -- has been a champ through it all, her mother said.
"Two people, psychologists, talked to her back in March. They told me, 'You are in worse shape than her,'" her mother said. "She's very strong and very courageous."
Saturday's fundraiser was organized by Sandy Ziros of South Elgin, who's been organizing fundraisers once a year for people who need help with medical bills.
Someone did that when her now 23-year-old grandson needed a kidney transplant at age 6, Ziros explained, so this is her way of paying it forward. Maria goes to school with Ziros' great-granddaughter.
"Tickets sales are going so slow," Ziros said. "Normally family and friends are buying them, but with Elena and Constantin, there isn't that option. They have nobody in the area."
A first fundraiser for the Serbans earlier this year was spearheaded by Dylan Snyder, 11, also a student at Willard.
Elena Serban said she is grateful beyond words.
"I am overwhelmed, especially because I didn't ask for help and they just offered to help," she said. "It's unbelievable."
The fundraiser is $20 and includes dinner, dancing and a drawing for an overnight stay at Harbor Shores Resort in Lake Geneva, Wis. There will be silent auctions, more raffles and door prizes.
Doors open at 5 p.m., dinner is from 6 to 8 p.m. followed by a DJ at the American Legion Post 57, 820 N. Liberty St., Elgin.