A first-grader who has struggled with illness all his life got a holiday surprise at Rutland Northeast Primary School recently: Because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Vermont, he’s going to Disney World.
First-grader Austin Dunn, 7, heard the news from Jamie Hathaway, president and CEO of the Vermont chapter, his mother, Jamie VanGuilder, and all of his schoolmates, who all together said, “Austin, you’re going to Disney World!”
The students also wished Dunn a “Happy Wish Day, Austin.”
Dunn has never been to Florida before, but there are things he wants to do at Disney World.
“I want to see the Transformers at Disney and see Minnie and Mickey,” he said.
Dunn was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, CDH, which the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia describes on its website as a condition that occurs when the diaphragm muscle, which separates the chest from the abdomen, fails to close during prenatal development, and the contents from the abdomen, like the stomach, intestines or liver, migrate into the chest through this hole.
VanGuilder said in Dunn’s case, his small intestines went up and put pressure on his heart.
“I didn’t get to hold him until he was 21 days old. … It was scary. He’s my first child. He’s my only child. It was a very long process. He’s had multiple surgeries, he was on a feeding tube for a while. He was on oxygen. I didn’t get him home until he turned exactly seven months,” she said.
Hathaway pointed out that wishes from the foundation serve the ill child’s entire family.
“When a child has an illness like this, the impact is not just on the family, but it’s also on the community and the school. So Make-A-Wish focuses not just on making sure the child’s wish is served, but that what’s happening is good for the family unit, and that this is something that’s going to be healing,” he said.
Hathaway pointed out that not every Make-A-Wish kid is suffering from a terminal disease, but they are all suffering from life-threatening conditions. Not every child with CDH would necessarily qualify for a wish fulfillment but because Dunn’s condition is critical, the Vermont chapter will grant his wish.
Dunn will go to Disney World for a week in February with VanGuilder, his stepfather and stepsister.
Hathaway said the Make-A-Wish organization and Disney have a strong relationship, and the children who visit one of the theme parks have special accommodations so they have an experience unique to the child.
VanGuilder said she had tears in her eyes when Hathaway told her that her son’s wish would be granted.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to get it. He’ll finally get what he wants.’ And that’s all I wanted,” she said.
VanGuilder said she always has to consider whether Dunn’s health problems will return or worsen.
“Even if it’s just for a week, I want him to have a spectacular time where he can be like, ‘Oh, my goodness, the world is bigger than I thought,’” she said.
Leah Abatiell, Dunn’s first-grade teacher at Northeast, helped him focus Friday and explain why he wanted to go to Disney World.
“Austin is a funny kiddo who has a huge heart. He loves to hug his friends all the time, He has a huge heart and he wants to learn. He tries his best, and we do the best we can to help him be his best,” she said.
According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about 1,600 babies are born with CDH every year in the United States.