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Wishful Thinking

The Make-A-Wish Foundation started in Arizona and has granted wishes for terminally ill children since 1980. Find out how the foundation helped one ASU student's dreams come true.

 by Gabriel Trujillo
 published on Thursday, October 13, 2005

/issues/arts/694364
On the cover
 
John Tyler isn't letting cystic fibrosis stop him from getting a college education. The Make-A-Wish Foundation paid for his first year of school and the English literature major now dreams of becoming a lawyer./issues/arts/694364
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
John Tyler isn't letting cystic fibrosis stop him from getting a college education. The Make-A-Wish Foundation paid for his first year of school and the English literature major now dreams of becoming a lawyer.
 

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John Tyler watches people walk by him as he sits near the fireplace inside the Memorial Union. He scrounges through his backpack, looking for his Japanese notes so he can study.

His thin body is engulfed by the chair as he searches through his textbook. Tyler takes off his sweat-stained ASU hat and reveals his jet-black hair as he scratches his head. The Japanese class is just one of the classes he is taking to complete a degree in English literature.

As Tyler lounges in the chair, nothing seems out of the ordinary. But the last 20 years of Tyler's life are anything but ordinary. Tyler was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth.

Cystic fibrosis affects approximately 30,000 people in the United States. People with cystic fibrosis have a defective gene that causes the body to produce an abnormally thick mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

With such a deadly disease, going to college would take a minor miracle. For Tyler, it took the granting of a single wish.

When Tyler was 18, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted his wish to go to college and gave him a scholarship to pay for his first two semesters at ASU.

The Foundation, created in 1980, grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses and started right here in the Valley.

"I couldn't think of anything else that I really wanted," says Tyler about his wish. "I wanted stuff, but I wanted to do something to help out my family."

Tyler says he didn't want to burden his family with the expense of paying for college, so asking for the scholarship was the best choice.

But to make Tyler's wish a reality, Tyler needed a recommendation from a physician or family member.

Once upon a doughnut

Tyler's mother, Lisa Schell, recommended her son to have a wish granted by the foundation and wanted to surprise her son when his wish was chosen. The foundation sent Wish Granter Jeff Henson and other volunteers to meet Tyler and his family. Henson, a wish granter of 13 years, says it's important for these kids to have something to look forward to.

"If a kid has a serious illness, they don't have too much to smile about," says Henson. "And the foundation is trying to do something about that."

For the visit, Henson came with small gifts. Henson says it's customary for the wish granters to bring gifts for the wish children and their siblings.

When Henson and the others arrived at Tyler's home, Tyler says he had no idea who the people from the foundation were and was a little hesitant toward the situation. He didn't want to make a huge deal about his illness.

"I didn't feel like I should get anything just because I am sick," says Tyler. "But I know they [Make-A-Wish] are just trying to make me feel better."

Tyler says everyone was a little nervous as the volunteers came inside, but the nerves quickly calmed once Henson showed the box of doughnuts to Tyler his brother and sister. Henson and the other volunteers introduced themselves to the family and sat around the kitchen table.

After a few bites of the chocolate-covered pastries and some small talk, Henson asked Tyler what he wanted his wish to be. When Tyler said he wanted to go to college, Henson says he was surprised by the request.

"John's wish was definitely unique," says Henson. "He could have had anything he wanted, but he wanted to have the chance to go to college."

Henson says that the most popular wishes are shopping sprees and going to Disneyland, but he completely understands Tyler's wish.

"He was conscientious enough with his family that he didn't want to burden them with the expense [of paying for college]," says Henson. "He was dedicated to going to college, and I commend him for that."

Party time

Since Tyler's wish didn't involve a shopping spree or family vacation, turning his wish into a lavish event was difficult. But Henson says the foundation was up for the challenge.

"Make-A-Wish is all about show and presentation," says Henson. "We want to show the kids that their wishes are a big deal."

Henson and the other wish granters decided to throw a dinner party at Red Lobster to celebrate Tyler's wish. Tyler says the seafood restaurant is his favorite place to eat, and he enjoyed the get-together with his family and friends.

He remembers black and white photos of fishermen and a large, ceramic orange fish adorned the wooden walls of the restaurant. Dressed in a black-collared shirt and tan shorts, as he sat at the end of the table with his mother.

His parents, brother and sister, along with people from Make-A-Wish, helped Tyler celebrate his wish. Tyler was also joined by his speech and English teachers from Mesquite High School. Tyler says he and his teachers became friends and kept in touch after graduation. The group sat around the table in red, wooden chairs and ordered their meals. Tyler chose crab legs and French fries.

When the dinner was complete, Henson and the other wish granters presented Tyler with an oversized check similar to those given to lottery winners. The check symbolized the scholarship given to Tyler from the foundation. Tyler's mother says the smile on Tyler's face was so large, you would have thought he just hit a huge jackpot.

"While the kids may be sick, it is a family disease," says Henson. "So it is nice to see the family smile and forget about the illness for a moment."

The steady flash from his mom's camera took a brief pause as she wiped a tear from her eye and snapped a photo of her son holding the check.

Back to school

The first day of college is overwhelming for even the strongest students. But for Tyler, he says dealing with huge campus and classes seemed easy compared to fighting for his life.

"Going to college seemed like a breeze after all I have to deal with because of CF," says Tyler.

Once he made it to ASU, Tyler says he realized it was a little tougher than he expected. After being late because of traffic, his first visit wasn't to his class, it was to a map. Standing in front of the map on Cady Mall, Tyler stared at his class schedule.

"I must have stopped at every map on campus," says Tyler. "I looked at the 'you are here' sticker, but I still couldn't tell where I was."

After listening to his economics lecture, he gained his sense of direction and continued to his Japanese 101 and pre-calculus classes.

While his first day of college had no major speed bumps, Tyler says it left him exhausted. Because of his disease, Tyler's body weakens easily, so he says it took some time before he got accustomed to his rigorous college schedule.

Tyler is pursuing a degree in English literature and plans on going to law school.

Walking through campus, Tyler blends into the sea of students walking down Cady Mall. And that's just the way he wants it.

"I don't want people to feel sorry for me just because I have CF," says Tyler. "It's something I have, but it doesn't rule my life."

Because of the CF, colds can turn into dangerous lung infections that could cause him to miss school. While Tyler won't let CF stop him from graduating, he says the disease doesn't make easy.

"It's scary to think that a small cough can turn into a hospital visit," says Tyler. "So I can't push myself too much since I get weak easily."

Although his body may be frail, Tyler is making sure his mind remains strong. He is taking 17 credit hours for this semester.

Are you going to die?

Tyler says the biggest misconception about the foundation is that it only grants wishes to terminally ill children.

A few months after his wish was granted, Tyler says a friend saw his picture on a plaque inside a Cold Stone Creamery. The ice-cream shop donated money to the scholarship and had a plaque presented to them from Make-A-Wish.

"My friend called me and said he didn't know I was dying," says Tyler. "He thought that since I had a wish granted that I was going to die soon."

Linda Pauling, one of the founders of Make-A-Wish, says the foundation is trying to fix the misconception that they only grant wishes to terminally ill children.

"The definition of terminal has changed since we began the foundation 25 years ago," says Pauling. "When my son was diagnosed with leukemia, he had a four percent chance of survival. If he was diagnosed today, his chances are around 90 percent."

Tyler, now 20, is entering his junior year at ASU and is well on his way to completing his degree. After graduation, Tyler says he plans on becoming a lawyer and, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, he has a good chance of having a healthier life. The foundation says 40 percent of the people with CF in the United States are now 18 or older.

While the median life expectancy of people with cystic fibrosis is only 32 years, Tyler says he is happy for the time he has been given and the experiences the foundation gave him.

"Science has helped me live a longer life," says Tyler. "But the Make-A-Wish Foundation made my dream of being a college graduate become a reality."

Reach the reporter at gabriel.trujillo@asu.edu.

Editor's Note: Permission to use the Make-A-Wish logo was granted to SPM by the Foundation.



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