Scores of families, professionals, athletes and adventure seekers visit the Chattanooga area every year, but one young man and his family are in town this week from Kansas for one special outdoor wish.
Thane, along with his father, Tim; his mother, Ginger; and his sister, Abby; arrived in the Scenic City Monday as part of his Make-A-Wish trip to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.
The family canoed North Chickamauga Creek yesterday. Today and tomorrow, Thane and Tim will hike 11 miles to Savage Gulf and camp out overnight, while Ginger and Abby take in downtown’s attractions and shopping.
—Thane was diagnosed in May 2008 after passing out at a golf tournament. His underwent his first surgery later that month in Wichita. Based on the biopsy results, the surgeon told Thane's family that he could operate, but with cancer so indistinguishable from healthy tissue, there was a good chance of paralysis. The surgeon also said they wouldn't find a specialist for Thane's rarified case.
—The family opted out of the surgery, and Ginger began a hunt that eventually settled on George Jallo at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The specialist operated successfully on the majority of the cancer that August.
—Two years later, Thane began his year-and-a-half course of chemotherapy to eliminate another cancerous growth at the bottom of his spine.
—Though Thane had to drop out of high school—he had to grow up fast, he explained—he earned his GED last spring and is currently enrolled in college.
The itinerary, which was a collaborative effort between several local organizations and businesses, drew the family to the Scenic City and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of East Tennessee above several other Make-A-Wish chapters along the hiking trail.
“It's my dream to do the entire Appalachian Trail eventually, so this is a preview,” Thane said.
The Hillsboro-based 18-year-old, whose last name has been left out per Make-A-Wish guidelines, was diagnosed with spinal cancer at the age of 14.
The four years that followed were what his mother described as a “roller coaster”—multiple surgeries, the hunt for a specialist, a year and a half of chemotherapy, missing the vast majority of high school—until the family learned last October that Thane’s cancer is now in remission.
As a gorgeous day unfolded at Greenway Farms yesterday, the family headed out to North Chickamauga Creek with two Outdoor Chattanooga guides to celebrate the first worry-free spring break in several years.
“That’s what we’re here for. That’s why we exist,” said Trevor Childress, recreation program specialist, whose colleague Terri Chapin, recreation programs coordinator, put together the outdoor itinerary. “We take people outside and show them what we love.”
Childress and James Eubank, recreation specialist, took the group for a two-hour canoe outing. Thanks to Outdoor Chattanooga’s wheelchair-accessible dock and yesterday’s favorable water levels, as well as the organization's experience offering adaptive programs, Abby, who is wheelchair-bound, was able to enjoy the family-friendly activity.
Today's hiking and camping excursion will take Thane, Tim, Eubanks and Outdoor Chattanooga intern Mike Huskins on a trek at Savage Gulf.
Technically not part of the Appalachian Trail, it is in the foothills of the A.T. and one of the popular spots in the Chattanooga area.
Meanwhile, Ginger and Abby will visit the Tennessee Aquarium, the Ice Cream Show and Ignis Glass Studio. During their time in Chattanooga, the family is staying at the Doubletree in downtown Chattanooga, which donated the rooms to the Make-A-Wish package.
“We know wishes give kids something to look forward to, so we know over the past few months he's been thinking about this, and it's given him something to hope for,” said Stephanie Wilkins, director of development for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of East Tennessee.
Wilkins explained that studies have demonstrated a correlation between wishes and patients following their treatment protocols more diligently, of the wish becoming a positive and powerful part of patients’ treatments.
She also noted that one of the largest misconceptions about the national organization lies in the requirements to make a wish: Though many children do suffer from terminal illnesses and injuries, children with life-threatening medical conditions, like Thane, can also receive wishes.
When a child's wish involves travel to a location outside of their home Make-A-Wish chapter, such as a trip to hike the A.T., the process involves gathering proposals from area chapters and allowing the family to pick the one with which they connect the most.
Chattanooga was in the running for Thane's wish with several other chapters in states along the national trail.
“Hopefully, they'll look at this as a fresh new start and keep moving forward,” Wilkins said.
Thane is currently a freshman at Tabor College in Hillsboro. He plans to major in biochemistry to make a career for himself in cancer research.