MESSAGE FROM DR. NEIL COOPER
How I Got Involved
My name is Dr. Neil Cooper and I’m a Disney addict. I can’t believe my luck because I get my fix every fall. I’ve been involved with Dreams Take Flight each year since the chapter's inception in 1993. I stumbled into the project one week prior to the first flight and agreed to help out with about 120 kids who had many medical problems but who I knew nothing about. I spent most of that first trip in the many Disneyland washrooms. (You don’t want to know what I had to do in there). Each year we’ve been able to plan the medical care a little bit better and I have to say that this has become one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of my pediatric practice.
Volunteer Run Organization
We all know the incredible challenge it is to put Dreams together each year. For many volunteers it involves countless hours and energy. For a few, like the organizing committees, it is like adding another full time, unpaid, job to the one or two they already have. For me, coordinating the medical care of 138 children for one day is a huge challenge. The children’s conditions range from perfectly healthy to very ill and from absolutely normal physically to severely handicapped. My wife Colleen and I coordinate all the information on the children and then we reassure the families that their children’s needs will be looked after. Remember that most of these children have never been away from their families! On the trip we ensure that all the children get their medicines on time and we handle any medical problems that come up during the day.
The challenges we face in organizing Dreams Take Flight pale in comparison the challenges these children tackle every day of their lives. I’d like to tell you to a little about a few of the children we have traveled with over the years.
Many of the children are physically challenged. There are those, like Shalayne, who live their lives in wheelchairs without enough feeling in their lower bodies to control their bowel and bladders. (That might give you a clue what I was doing in the bathroom that first year). There are those, like Sean, with complex medical problems who literally have to take liters of medicine several times a day through a tube into their stomach in order to survive. Many of the kids have more well known problems like Anna with diabetes, Leslie with Crohn’s disease, Amanda with cystic fibrosis and Heather with leukemia. Each year we have had a large group of hearing impaired children.
Many of the children are mentally challenged. They range from those like Matthew with Down syndrome to Peter with severe Attention Deficit Disorder. Some of these children have been our greatest behavior challenges.
All of the children are socially challenged. Their families would never be able to give them this kind of an adventure. Many of them come from single parent homes. Daniel, who has hemophilia, lost his mother to cancer about a year before the trip. Several children each year come from abusive backgrounds.
Many children have multiple challenges to contend with. I am reminded of the boy, recently diagnosed with diabetes who’s parents did not return the information forms even after repeated reminders and multiple excuses. We were about ready to throw in the towel in frustration only a few days before the trip when we discovered that the parents were totally illiterate. They couldn’t possibly have filled out the paperwork and they were too embarrassed to ask for help. A student nurse from the Children’s eventually went out to their home to help them with the paperwork and, on the morning of the trip, drove the child to the airport.
Each of these children, at one time or another, has cried out -- "why me" or "what did I do to deserve this" or "it’s not fair". Their challenges are ongoing and for most of them, unending.
What Does DTF Do?
So what does "Dreams" do for these children? What can we do in one day? -- We give them a day off! One day to forget about their challenges and to be made the most special person in the world. One day for every detail in their life to be looked after for them. The trip, the Magic Kingdom, the gifts, the friends they make, the one-on-one attention, the children are left speechless. The families are overwhelmed by the attention to detail and the excellence of the project.
And when they get back, over the next couple of days -- something changes. They somehow are reassured that good things can happen to them. The nurses and other caregivers who see them regularly describe children who now beam when they see them. Instead of asking a negative "Why me?" they are asking "What did I do to deserve this?" One day of magic resets their barometer of fair and unfair and for many of the children their life is altered.
Impact to the Children
Sure their challenges continue. I know of at least one child who has lost his battle with his disease. But for many attitudes change. I saw a girl in the hospital who brought with her a stuffed Dalmatian puppy who has been her constant companion since her trip. She has had many admissions and surgeries and will have many more but she lights up when I talk to her about her trip.
For many of the children this day becomes a focal point of their lives, a fulcrum over which the scales tipped in their favor. Afterward, in spite of their continued challenges, they look at life with a new enthusiasm and energy. The excellence we all strive for on this project pay off huge dividends in the lives of our "Dream Kids" and their families. As we continue to meet the challenges of organizing this year’s Dreams Take Flight we can rest assured that we are making a tangible difference in the lives of these children and their families.
Dr. Neil Cooper
DTF Medical Staff Director
Dr. Cooper is a pediatrician at the Alberta Children's Hospital.