Born a healthy baby, at age 15 months Mariah started pulling on her ear and indicated that her head hurt. Her doctor suggested a referral to Seattle Children’s Hospital for what he referred to as an “abnormality of the head.” A social worker in the office put her in touch with AFW and within 24 hours they had a flight.
Three doctors were consulted and the diagnosis was neuroblastoma, a type of pediatric cancer that develops in the nervous system of babies and young children. It usually affects the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys and can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Mariah has had it all, and then some. This was September 1999, their first AFW mission.
Her mom Margie said that Mariah’s journey began at this visit at Seattle Children’s hospital with a bone marrow biopsy, and chemotherapy within two days post diagnosis. Since then, Mariah has flown, and continues to fly, with AFW for treatment of various health challenges that have arisen in connection with the disease and treatment. The list includes a stem cell transplant in 2000, leg lengthening of one leg shortened caused by the radiation, vascular surgery, septicemia, feeding tube for two years, loss of one kidney, heart valve issues, and damage to her right eye.
Fast forward to 2021, and she is now 22 years old. Her doctors gave her a 10% survival chance. Margie said, “If she were a race horse I wouldn’t have bet on her. But, she came in big!” She was pronounced “five years clean” and to celebrate this anniversary, Margie and her family went to the San Juan Islands to enjoy the beach and nature. “For land lovers like us living in Montana, it was pretty exciting.”
Margie explains that young adults with this disease have a high rate of depression, but Mariah is managing well. “Most people would look at her and wouldn’t know she was ill.” She is attending Montana State University and is actually playing the clarinet in the school’s marching band. She wears a special shoe with a lift to compensate and takes Tylenol if she hurts. If all goes well, she will graduate in 2022 with a music technology degree.
As with all AFW passengers, Margie is very grateful for having the benefit of this service. They have had a multitude of flights. Theirs is often a one-way three-leg flight with the possibility of three different pilots. On one such round-trip mission, Mariah’s young brother accompanied them and both received a stuffed animal on every flight. Margie said, “They came home with six new stuffed animals!”
Margie continues, “When Mariah was little, she had a love relationship with pilot Jim Long. When she’d see him, she’d run to him and he’d happily pick her up. He was the first pilot to fly all three legs. We’ve had wonderful pilots throughout the years. Captain Fred has flown us A LOT! We love his dog Jasper.”
She adds, “There’s a different sort of bond you get when you fly with someone for 2-3 hours and talk about things. When you get out of the plane, you want to give a grateful hug to someone you may never see again.”