MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – A dozen young people, their families and medical providers gathered at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to celebrate the courage and resiliency of these kids in the face of significant medical challenges at the annual Young Heroes ceremony on May 7.
The Young Heroes program has been a fixture at Madigan for more than 20 years and has been supported by the Madigan Foundation for nearly as long. Each spring, it presents young patients, nominated by their healthcare providers or family members, with medals and certificates in this ceremony.
Madigan Commander Col. (Dr.) Jonathan Craig Taylor provided opening remarks that offered a perspective common to those who work with these kids.
“We see you as superheroes that wear capes, people that are going to save cities from evil villains, are going to leap tall buildings, run at the speed of light, and you're going to solve some of the greatest problems we have to solve,” he said speaking of the limitless potential these kids have displayed. “We just want to come alongside you, as doctors and nurses and professionals, and we want to help you to be able to succeed and do all the things that you want to do.”
As providers to include oncologists, developmental pediatricians, gastroenterologists and nurses came to the podium to speak about each of the young patients they nominated and their physical and developmental journeys, the honorees and their families joined Taylor, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Kate Liesemer, the chief of the Department of Pediatrics, and Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Pierce in front of the U.S. and Madigan flags.
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Bonnie Jordan, the program director for the Developmental Pediatric Fellowship at Madigan and the master of ceremonies, said as the presentations began, “As you hear a brief story about each of these heroes, I am sure you will agree that these children have not simply accepted a medical diagnosis, but as Col. Taylor said, are like superheroes who have accepted his or her sacred mission to independently change the world and directly impact our lives.”
Shane Magpie is a high schooler who wants to become an architect. He was first diagnosed with autism and ADHD more than ten years ago and has been working with Lt. Col. (Dr.) Dan Tolson, the chief of Developmental Pediatrics, since. Impressed by his perseverance, Tolson nominated Shane.
In his free time, Shane enjoys looking at exploring different architectural designs and sharing his finds with other. He has been able to improve his grades and schooling experience even though the pandemic’s impacts to this education have been challenging.
Of Shane, Tolson said, “He has learned to deal with his challenges and continues to overcome them one step at a time. We look forward to his bright and open future and we want to honor him for his perseverance through the many years.”
Bailee Opdahl is a 20-year-old who seems to be in a perpetual good mood, loves to make people laugh and is generous with her hugs. Dealing with Downs Syndrome and other chronic conditions including Type One Diabetes takes constant monitoring. But, Bailee’s taught her peers at school the importance of glucose control and they now help her keep track of it and alert the teacher if her monitor sounds in class.
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Rachael Paz, a pediatric endocrinologist who cares for and nominated Bailee, said, “Bailee is a young hero who faces life, despite its challenges, with optimism and unending joy and she is an example to us all.”
Paz described Bailee as sweet, generous and always in a good mood. Bailee also loves to make people laugh and is very generous with her hugs.
Jaleel “Blu” Marshall, a seventh grade honor student, brought Teresa Poole, a pediatric nurse practitioner, to the ceremony to note that he, “Is a remarkable young man.”
He was born with the amniotic band syndrome which happens when fibrous bands of the amniotic sac that contains the fetus within the uterus get tangled around the developing fetus.
“He manages to maintain excellent grades even with the frequent disruptions related to his medical care. He's active in sports, is a great big brother to Jamari, now aged two, and is excited about his little sister due to arrive the end of June,” said Poole.
She went on to explain that Blu works with his mother volunteering with Healing Hearts Ranch for Operation T.H.R.I.V.E., a program designed to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. He assists the participants and helps care for the horses.
“He is seen as a role model of positivity in the face of adversity,” concluded Poole.
Nathaniel Banks and his family were unable to attend the ceremony, but Heather Peters, a nurse in the Madigan Pediatric Specialty Clinic, stepped forward to recognize the patient that she and Col. (Dr.) Jason Caboot, the nominator, treat.
At just six years old, Nate is one of the youngest heroes recognized in the ceremony. Peters noted that it is his courage, optimism and kindness that scored him the award.
She also described his condition.
“Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects 30,000 children and young adults in the U.S. CF causes the body to produce abnormally thick sticky mucus, which clogs the lungs and interferes with digestion. This mucus holds on to bacteria which can lead to life threatening lung infections. On a daily basis, individuals with CF must endure hours of chest physical therapy and take numerous medications to help them breathe and digest their food,” explained Peters.
Even at such a young age, Nate has learned to deal with his disease and the daily challenges it presents with independence and ease, stated Peters.
Reis Kirkpatrick sat up front with her sister, mom, dad and grandma. Her nominator was again Caboot and her presenter Peters, who described Reis as a vibrant 8-year-old.
She has taken her cystic fibrosis in stride as much as a kid can.
“While her family and medical team have worked hard to teach her how to take care of herself, she adapted a positive attitude towards the CF all on her own,” noted Peters. “She has an example for us all on how to face a challenge simultaneously with determination and happiness.”
Peters described her as a child of many talents and passions who is an avid bookworm, a runner who loves to scale tall trees and is a lover of art.
“You can say that she sees life as an adventure that is worth living to its fullest,” said Peters. “She shows others what it means to never quit and always give your best.”
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Kirk Liesemer, a pediatric cardiologist, presented two heroes back-to-back. William Colley and Lily Borgkvist.
William Colley was probably the most dapper dresser at the day’s proceedings. With his snazzy vest, he stood with his family to receive his award in style.
Liesemer described William as, “A fun-loving 7-year-old who's in second grade loves playing soccer and Minecraft, which sounds pretty typical. But there's absolutely nothing typical about William.”
Born prematurely, William has dealt with many physical complications and challenges in his young life to include one of the most severe heart defects there is which prevented his trachea from forming normally.
“William has a very complicated heart defect at baseline that some children don't survive. Layering the severe airway defect on top of his heart defect is extremely high risk. It caused us to delay his third heart surgery by several years in fact; I've never heard of another patient surviving this combination of defects, which gives William a lot of street cred in the cardiology clinic,” Liesemer noted with a smile.
Liesemer was one of many presenters who acknowledged the vital support of the family behind each of these young patients.
“While William deserves most of the credit for his success, I simply can't say enough about his family. His dad, Tech Sgt. Jacob Colley, was deployed to Turkey for that year timeframe between [William’s] trickier reconstruction and his most recent heart surgery. He and [William’s] mother Annie have always rolled with the ups and downs with courage and aplomb. They are what I call flexible stalwarts and while the term resiliency gets thrown around a lot, I think they embody that, as does every family here to be honest,” Liesemer said.
Rolling into his next presentation, Liesemer displayed how intertwined the patient and provider become in the treatment process.
“Lily is an absolutely devoted, delightful 10-year-old girl whose bright, inquisitive and talkative nature disguises someone who has overcome unbelievable odds,” said Liesemer.
She was born with a severe heart defect and has had three major open heart surgeries and multiple follow-up ones to address complications.
“Talking with Lily, you get to see the world through the eyes of the 10-year-old which is a real gift and the reason many of us go into pediatrics, something I think a lot of parents can relate to as well,” noted Liesemer.
Arianna Calderon is an outstanding student and a wonderful big sister, according to her presenter, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Robert Cornfeld, a pediatric gastroenterologist.
Before speaking about Arianna, Cornfeld asked audience members to put a hand up and only put it down when he reached a number higher than the number of moves they have experienced in the military.
Pushing Cornfeld to 18 was Col. Gail Atkins, the deputy commander for support from the 7th Infantry Division, who was in attendance to support her troops.
The Calderon family was on their first move when Arianna became ill.
“I oftentimes think the military family is the backbone for the service member or for the warfighter. There's nothing we can do without our families,” said Cornfeld, acknowledging the tremendous strength the service member draws from their family. “There's no greater stress during a time of a move than to have your child be sick,” he added.
Roseshel “Ellie” Mock was not in attendance because she was dedicating herself to getting the best SAT score possible. Lt. Col. (Dr.) Angela Bryan, a pediatric rheumatologist, recognized her.
“She is just an outstanding young woman who has a disease called mixed connective tissue disease. This is an autoimmune disease that is akin to something that's a little more common called lupus. So it's something that can affect every organ in your body. Ellie has persevered through needing to take medication oral IV infusions since she was a toddler, and she's just an amazing young woman that every time I see her she is smiling,” said Bryan.
Asyia Acfalle was recognized by Capt. (Dr.) Erica Bucki, a pediatric resident and Jackie Rossbach, a nurse in the Madigan Pediatric Specialty Clinic.
Asyia is a high schooler who always thinks of others.
“When I first met Asyia, it was near the beginning of her leukemia diagnosis when she was staying in the hospital to start treatment. For all the time that's passed since then, I'm not sure if she would even remember that night, but I certainly do. I recall asking her how she was doing and she replied, ‘I'm good. How are you?’ It was a situation that would have warranted just about any other response. Other than I'm good. And here was Aisha reassuring me that she was good and asking me a person she had just met how I was doing. I remember thinking how strong, brave and kind she was,” recalled Bucki.
Rossbach joined the presentation to add a nurse’s perspective. She echoed Bucki’s assessment that Asyia is exceptionally kind.
“She just, you know, brings a smile to everyone's face on the floor, even as she's going through her own stuff,” said Rossbach.
Mary Jo Cahill represented the Madigan Foundation in presenting two Sandra Green Scholarships.
Just like Cahill, Green was a Madigan Foundation board member. She was also a long-time social worker who was a great champion of the Young Heroes program.
Luke Bolt was nominated by Lorraine Carney, a nurse practitioner with the Faith Clinic, a specialty clinic for adults with developmental disabilities.
Not in attendance himself because he was involved in a study program, Luke’s parents accepted his scholarship certificate for him and listened to Carney’s words about him.
Diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, Luke has been working on becoming a registered dietitian at George Fox University since 2019.
“Luke is ambitious and has not let his diagnosis affect his decision to continue his education,” said Carney.
Alexander Morrison was nominated for a scholarship by Cornfeld.
Alex graduates from high school this year and was expecting to start working. Now, with this scholarship, he will attend a local vocational school to develop some solid skills. He has been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, a difficult condition to live with and talk about.
In treating Alex, Cornfeld initially found Alex reserved and reticent, not enthused to talk about his condition.
“But the more you talk with him the more you realize that there is this well of strength in there that can get anything done,” said Cornfeld who was excited to see Alex get this scholarship to heighten his professional prospects. “I think there’s no greater testimony to the power of this scholarship.”
Following each presentation, the hero got a backpack filled with gifts and got to take home the poster that was printed with their photo with a Young Heroes graphic. At the end of the ceremony, attendees got treats and a chance to pictures under the Young Heroes banner.
This group of courageous kids and resilient families is just a fraction of those facing significant physical and developmental challenges every day at Madigan.
The opportunity that the Young Heroes program affords the care teams and families to take a break from the challenges and celebrate the kids themselves is a welcome change of pace.
As Taylor put it, “This really is about uplifting our spirits, right? It's about just being able to recognize these young heroes and empower them to live their lives to their fullest potential.”
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