by Dennis Dalman
Nathan Gray of Sartell can’t wait to celebrate his 7th birthday on Friday, Oct. 24 in a very special, exciting place – aboard the Disney Dream cruise ship on the way from Florida to the Bahamas.
Nathan is one of the happy young recipients of the Make a Wish Foundation. He, his parents Julie and Tano, and his younger brother, Aaron, will enjoy the four-day cruise from Oct. 23-27. Their Caribbean holiday will also include a stop on a private island owned by DisneyWorld.
Fortunately, Nathan is officially in remission from the lymphoma form of cancer he has battled for more than 18 months. He doesn’t have to take pills anymore, and he is done with chemotherapy treatments. He still has to do follow-up check-ups and therapy twice a week at CentraCare Health Plaza, but other than that he is blissfully free of the Stage 3 cancer that had once ravaged him and caused so much pain.
In late winter 2013, Nathan would wake up crying and screaming with abdominal pains, often preceded by terrible nightmares. His parents thought it might be indigestion, hunger pains, gas pains, the flu? But then they began to worry. Three times over a four-day period, they brought Nathan to the emergency room. The pains were so intense, doctors had to treat him with morphine.
Finally, during a visit to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, doctors had to tell the parents the dire diagnosis: Stage 3 lymphoma, which had such a devastating lethal sound to it.
During his treatment phase, which included a long series of chemotherapy sessions, he gradually improved.
His parents could practically gauge his improvement by his increasing excitement about art works. He would go to the activities room at Children’s Hospital and launch into a happy splurge with paints, painting many versions of his family’s barn-red house in Sartell. The lively art works always showed the same red house, but he depicted it in widely varying weathers: bright sunshine, a green lawn, flowers, birds, stormy clouds, rainy days, snowstorms.
Nathan has long been the family “artist.” He is also a very good student, an outgoing little boy who is very compassionate to other living beings, especially babies and other young children.
“He’s doing good now,” his father said. “He’ll have his six-month check up next Friday. He does have some side effects, like some stiffness in his joints, but he’s doing well at home and at school.”
Nathan is a student in the Spanish immersion program at Clearview Elementary School in Clearwater.
“He’s very bright and quick to learn,” his father said. “He likes swimming, which is part of his recovery plan. He’s been in swimming lessons since last year. We are so blessed to have him in our life.”
Before the Gray family leaves for Florida and the cruise, Nathan will have a send-off at Bounce Adventure in Waite Park, a party for him and his friends. Bounce Adventure is donating a weekend package for up to 15 of Nathan’s friends, which includes the bouncy inflatable fun, pizza, ice cream and soda pop. Mary Steffes of Sartell will be one of the special guests. Steffes, a volunteer “wish granter” with the Make a Wish Foundation, said she is thrilled about Nathan and his family getting to go on a cruise paid for by Make a Wish.
Last March, Steffes interviewed the Gray family and then provided them with all the details they’d need to know for their trip.
Nathan’s “make-a-wish come true” is the 26th young person Steffes has arranged for the realization of their wishes – four of them Sartell children. Not all of them were trips. One youngster, for instance, chose to have a total make-over done for his room; another wanted an at-home play center.
The interviews with Make a Wish candidates always involve two people – in this case Steffes and another volunteer, who was a young man named Derek Drier, a former St. Cloud State University student, now living in the Twin Cities, who decided to become a Make a Wish volunteer. As a result, he was paired with Steffes, who has been tutoring him in the process.
Besides meeting and getting to know the Make a Wish children and their families, Steffes and Drier made sure all documentation was in order for the trip and then learned in detail the likes and dislikes of the child. Medical-release information had to be secured, along with any special needs required while the child and family are on the trip.
“We keep in contact with families,” Steffes said, “and we give them periodic reminders about their wish. After they get their wish, we meet with them again to see how they enjoyed the wish and if there is any way we can make improvements.”
“DisneyWorld seems to be the most popular choice for the Make a Wish program,” she said, “although one child chose Paris and another chose Hawaii. One other child, who could not travel, got a new TV and a chair. Another one got to swim with a dolphin. I’m so happy to be part of the Make a Wish program.”
The national Make a Wish Foundation, with chapters in all states, is dedicated to granting wishes to children ages 2 to 18 who are suffering from life-threatening medical conditions. Most often, the names of children and families are referred by parents, medical professionals or people who are aware of the child’s illness.
To learn more about Make a Wish, go to its Minnesota chapter’s website: mn.wish.org.
Nathan Gray prepares to tumble down a bouncy slide at Bounce Adventure in Waite Park, where he enjoyed a kick-off party with friends before he and his family head for Orlando, Fla. later this month for a Make a Wish Disney cruise.
Nathan Gray (right) gives his little brother, Aaron, a hug.
A happy family – the Grays of Sartell – gather for a photo at Bounce Adventure in Waite Park. From left to right (front) are brothers Aaron and Nathan with their mother Julie and father Tano. At right is Mary Steffes, also of Sartell, who is a Make a Wish Foundation volunteer. Steffes helped get Nathan a Make a Wish Disney cruise to the Bahamas. Nathan has suffered from a form of lymphoma but now is fortunately in remission.