Behind every wish granted by Make-A-Wish Ireland is a child and their family whose stories of courage and bravery in the face of adversity are legendary. Jason Dunne is no exception.
The same week that he was preparing for major spinal surgery, Jason’s wish to spend a day with the keepers at Dublin Zoo was granted. His mother says that day was the greatest gift he keeps getting. Michelle is telling Jason’s story as part of Woodie’s Heroes campaign, raising funds for four Irish children’s charities that work tirelessly to improve the lives of children across the country.
When Jason was born, the doctors knew right away that something was wrong. Michelle, who lives in Moycullen, Co. Galway, remembers being sent to Crumlin when Jason was just a few weeks old. This began her three-year journey to diagnosing a congenital myopathy that causes muscle weakness, not just in the body’s large muscles like the arms and legs, but in other muscles, including those of the heart and lungs. He also suffers from scoliosis, which causes a curvature of the spine, and has had multiple surgeries in his short life.
The milestones in a child’s life that are taken for granted — things like walking, crawling, and even feeding — weren’t part of Jason’s life. He’s been tube-fed since birth and has never walked or crawled, but Michelle says he’s a talker whose zest for life is contagious. Learning can be a bit tiring due to his condition and school is very tiring, but according to his mother he likes to play with his friends in his power chair.
She explains that scoliosis is common in congenital myopathy because the sufferer is unable to develop their core muscles. Despite the obstacles he faces, Michelle says Jason is a happy kid who loves his friends.
Having had 21 surgeries since he was two, Jason has countless medical appointments with physical therapists, nutritionists, and occupational therapists, as well as doctors and surgeons. Due to the severity of his scoliosis, Jason had to have rods lengthened in his back every five to nine months as he grew. Doctors knew spinal surgery would be necessary, but didn’t want to do it when he was too young.
Michelle heard about Make-A-Wish Ireland through Muscular Dystrophy Ireland because Jason’s condition was falling under her radar. However, she was unaware that Jason might be eligible for a wish, mistakenly believing it was only for terminally ill children. Finding out it also applies to children with life-limiting medical conditions, she applied on Jason’s behalf in 2018.
The pandemic meant much of life had to be put on hold, and Jason’s wish was put on hold too – until Michelle got a call to find out all about her son’s passions in life and how to best serve him could grant a wish.
Michelle says her son has always been fascinated by the animal kingdom: the more dangerous the animal, the more eager it is. Sharks, lions and tigers in particular were his favorite animals, and as the Make-A-Wish team researched his interests, it seemed something wildlife-related would be high on Jason’s wish list. One of his favorite shows on TV was The animal parkwho went behind the scenes at Dublin Zoo.
Eventually, Jason put it simply – he wanted to be a zoo keeper for a day. A keeper at Dublin Zoo started to get in touch with the family, sending videos from around the zoo and adding little quizzes to keep Jason busy.
The day last September when Jason’s wish came true was just two days before he underwent major spinal surgery. His mother says the timing was a major distraction from something that was huge in his life and in hers.
“He thought we were going to have surgery and he was flabbergasted. All thoughts of hospital are gone,” says Michelle, who managed to keep the day of the requested visit surprising.
The day went like a dream, starting with Jason putting on a zoo keeper’s uniform and hat and feeding the elephants, sea lions and penguins. He threw food for the orangutans and stayed by the jar while the keepers placed food for the lions and tigers where he could see it.
He also enjoyed chatting with the zoo keepers and asking questions about all of the animals in their care. “He was a zoo keeper and he had the hat to prove it. That was his task for the day. You never see that side of things — you see it on TV, but it’s not the same,” says Michelle.
After the dream day, Jason got an annual pass to visit the zoo whenever he wanted. It cemented the zoo as a very special place in his heart. He underwent surgery just two days later, but Michelle says making his wish come true was the focus of his attention. “He had to do something that was just for him. It’s not something you can easily do. There is no price for what he must do.”
The effects of that special day are still being felt. “He wants to volunteer for the zoo. He talks about what he wants to do when he’s older — he can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it,” says Michelle.
Every time she and Jason are in Dublin on dates now, they try to plan a trip to the zoo. “The hospital appointments are almost forgotten and the anxiety he used to have is gone. In its place comes a child happy to be doing something he loves. That’s one less thing to worry about for me,” she says.
“He’s also a lot more confident. When he recently went to Dublin Zoo on his school tour, he was able to be the leader because he knew where everything was. This whole wishing day was magical. We felt so important. People couldn’t do enough for us and they were so kind and so understanding. This up close and personal experience was life changing,” says Michelle.
In the last seven years, Woodie’s Heroes has raised €2.5 million for Irish children’s charities, with over €536,000 last year alone. This year’s campaign will run until August 13th and will support ISPCC by Childline, Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and Make-A-Wish Ireland.
Visit woodies.ie/woodies-heroes for more information
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/the-magic-of-make-a-wish-the-hospital-appointments-are-almost-forgotten-and-the-anxiety-he-used-to-have-is-gone-41860621.html The Magic of Make-A-Wish: “The hospital appointments are almost forgotten and the anxiety he used to have is gone”