David’s life at just thirteen years old revolved around being outside with his friends, playing with cars, and watching his favorite movies – The Minion Movie. He wasn’t a competitive player in anything, but he loved the fast paced energy of soccer and anything active. An extremely energetic kid, David hung out with his friends to play game, rode his bike, and ran around everywhere. Despite all this, however, his real passion was in taking things apart to find out how they go together. He loved his science classes, messing around with Legos, and going to the Franklin Institute with his family whenever he could. From playing soccer just for the thrill of it to taking apart and rebuilding anything he could get his hands on, David was rarely ever still.
When the school nurse called to inform the family that David was sick with a fever and not feeling well, they didn’t think too much of it. Even with the high fever and fear of Pneumonia, this was something had had a number of times before – he would out of commission for a week at most. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone, but it wouldn’t last long. “We just kind of chalked it up to no big deal,” David’s father, Stephen, explains with the regret of retrospect. They took him to the ER for what they believed to merely be another round of Pneumonia, but that complacency did not last for long.
One of the first warning signs of the trials to come was when the nurse in the ER was doing an examination and noticed an abnormality on David’s side. She turned to his parents, asking “Has his side always stuck out like this?” They had no answer for her – the strange way that David’s chest jutted out wasn’t enough to be visible through his clothes. He never walked around without a shirt in the house or outside, Stephen explained, so we had never seen or noticed the abnormality until that moment. From that moment on, everything existed in a blur of shock. David was taken in to get his side examined and scans done and the results were nothing his family could have ever anticipated. What had begun as a routine trip to the ER to get a common case of Pneumonia treated became a diagnosis of cancer. The strange jut out of David’s side was in reality a liver mass – a five pound tumor. The abnormality was “the size of a sugar baby watermelon” and David ended up having to get half of his liver removed to save him. It all seemed to mark an end to that unending energy of David’s.
The treatments were terrifying to watch him go through, David repeating every time “I don’t want to do this.” It began to wear on both David and his family, the slow decline of his determination to get through it all into wearied resignation. With every round of chemotherapy, David’s boundless energy seemed farther and farther away. With no immune system, even playing outside or a simple scrape could become deadly for him. Life, what used to be a new adventure every day, had turned into treatment after treatment with no end in sight. What was once the great mystery of how everything could come apart and back together again was now David: the removal of the dangerous pieces inside of him and hoping that this time, it would stick. This time, he could be right again and take one more trip to the Franklin Institute. Go outside with his friends. Play soccer. Trapped inside the cycle of treatments, life seemed behind him, not ahead of him.
So when their social worker approached them with the opportunity to have a wish come true some of that joy come back into his relentless medical routine, David knew his answer immediately. The Make-A-Wish volunteers gave him time to think over his wish, but he knew what he wanted from the very first minute he had been accepted for a wish. David’s father had had a co-worker that had gone through the wish process, but her Disney wish gave him no precedence for how David’s unique wish could go. David approached the journey with the same determination to push through his fear that he had developed in his months of treatments. While before it was just to see an end of his treatments, here he could see a reward for his dedication. Despite a fear of heights, he pushed through to finally see his heroes in San Diego: the Naval Bomb Squad.
David’s first experience with the Naval Bomb squad had been their presence at a Navy - Air Force football game while he was in third grade. From then on, he was fascinated with the division. After seeing them he knew that yes – this is what he wanted to be when he grew up. And he never let go of that interest. How they operated, what their day to day was like, and most importantly – their equipment. David wanted to know how it functioned, what they used, how they used it. He wanted to know how it all operated. When the Make-A-Wish volunteers interviewed him, it was clear that he knew his stuff. He had done plenty of research on the group, it was not just a passing interest when he had been young. He was described by the volunteers as “clearly an outgoing and happy kid,” a sharp contrast to that resigned defeat not so long ago. David had seen a bomb squad demonstration in Philadelphia and knew that this was what he wanted for his wish – to be able to finally find out how his heroes worked.
When mobile Unit 11 took on David, he got to experience so much more than he ever could have imagined. From his own uniform to cakes decorated as his very own confidential “bomb squad training kit,” the EOD, or Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, took David’s dreams and made them a reality. He even got to go through a mock village training exercise in which it was up to David to disarm a bomb strapped to a “hostage” (who bore a striking resemblance to his brother). The experience gave him an opportunity he thought the cancer had stolen from him. Once dreaming idle fantasies of growing up to be just like them, the diagnosis had been like a harsh reality check. “When I –“ suddenly became “If I-“ and those plans became more and more like unachievable fantasies. Yet, here he was amongst all the people he has so idolized, doing the work he had only ever wondered about. With all he had overcome, just being amongst them and learning how they functioned would have brought the sun back into his life. But the Unit was not content with letting him be just a bystander. They took him in, making him a member of the unit in his own right as he went through training, exercises, and celebration of his heroics. Not only just the heroism of “saving” his brother from that bomb – but also in the determination and vigor he approached his own illness with. Despite his fears and reluctance as his illness wore on, David was there. He had made it. He had not given up in the face of fear and had seen his reward for it. He may have thought Unit 11 heroes, but they were the ones treating David like a hero.
His experience with the Naval Bomb Squad was a future that David never thought he was going to be able to see. Amongst his heroes, he was constantly smiling and went through the whole trip in an ecstatic state. The simple joy on his face was something his family had not seen in a long time, saying they’d “never seen him beam ear to ear like he did that day!” -- The boundless excitement of David was contagious, lifting the spirits of all his family. His father described the intervention of their social worker and Make-A-Wish as an opportunity they, or anyone else, never could have been able to fulfill otherwise. Make-A-Wish and Mobile Unit 11 brought energy back into David’s life – giving him a chance not only to rekindle his passions for tinkering and building, but simply for life in general. Here, David had gotten the chance to find out not only how all this new and unknown equipment worked, but just how the bomb squad worked. The experience brought back David’s own energy - giving him the motivation he needs for his long journey. The continual treatments that had sapped David of his energy don’t seem so endless after his revitalization in San Diego. And now that he has taken it all apart to find out how it works, maybe someday he can go on to put it back together and work on the bomb squad himself.