A wish paid forward

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2010 - 9:56 PM

Belle Plaine cancer patient chose to fulfill the wish of a fellow patient who died, sending his family to Disney World.

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The Bisila family lost AJ, second from right, last spring. His parents, Lisa and Tom Bisila, and his siblings, from left Susan, 13, Michael, 11, Marc, 5, Waylyn, 3, and Julee, 8, will get a vacation at Disney World thanks to Megan Millmann. She knows from experience how tough cancer is on families.

Photo: Photo provided by the family

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If you were granted one wish, what would you ask for?

The answer given by one 16-year-old cancer patient brings tears to her parents' eyes. It surprised even adults whose job is helping dreams come true for sick children.

Her choice: To fulfill the dream of a 9-year-old fellow patient who wanted to take his family to Disney World but died before his own wish could be granted.

Megan Millmann pondered the question in the Minneapolis hospital where she lived for much of this year. She's gone through five rounds of chemotherapy since a leukemia diagnosis in March.

The Belle Plaine teenager has lost weight, lost her hair and gone through a lot of pain. But she hasn't lost hope: The type of cancer she has had is often curable, and her doctors now say she's in remission.

Another bright spot: The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Minnesota told her this spring that she'll be granted one wish.

Kids with life-threatening illnesses who get wishes ask for all kinds of things. A trip to Paris. A meeting with Brett Favre. The chance to be a model or a firefighter for a day.

Megan thought about a lot of things in her hospital bed. A Hawaiian vacation. A 2011 Mustang -- though she found out she couldn't ask for a car. But something she learned about a fellow patient's wish made up her mind.

Nine-year-old AJ Bisila was fighting a rare tumor when his mom befriended Megan's family at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. AJ had also been granted a wish, and he knew what he wanted: A trip to Disney World with his parents and five siblings.

AJ's family had hoped to go to Florida in September, for his birthday. But AJ never turned 10. He died in the hospital on April 15.

Though the two families got to know each other at the hospital, Megan and AJ never hung out. They were both too sick. The day Megan officially met AJ, it was to say goodbye. He died 20 minutes later.

Later, Megan learned that because AJ had died, Make-A-Wish would no longer send his family to Disney World. The wish had been for AJ.

Here's one thing Megan says she knows from her time in the hospital: Cancer is hard on patients, but it can be harder on their families. "It's a lot more painful and emotional for them, because they have to feel so helpless," she said.

AJ, whose family lives in Isanti, has five brothers and sisters between ages 3 and 13. If anyone deserves a vacation, Megan figures it's them. So she made a request that Make-A-Wish of Minnesota volunteers and employees believe is a first: She wished for AJ's family to get his wish.

"We have not had a request like this before," said LaChelle Semanko, director of program services for the foundation.

Since 1982, the foundation has granted more than 3,000 wishes. A few children have made philanthropic wishes, she said. One boy went on a shopping spree to buy toys for kids at a homeless shelter. But Megan's wish to grant another child's wish may be unique for Make-A-Wish of Minnesota.

A heartfelt decision

Though they barely knew each other, AJ's death was life-changing for Megan, she said. It was a moment of "finally realizing that children do die."

When Megan announced her wish, some hospital staff members worried that she had survivor's guilt, she said. They came to talk to her, but "I had a lot of time to think about my wish, and why I wanted to give it to [the Bisilas], and none of what they said to me had even crossed my mind."

When she came to the hospital, she said, the first thing her doctors said was that every patient's journey is different. "AJ's cancer was a lot different than mine," she said. "It was sad seeing someone with cancer die, but I didn't think, 'Oh, I'm going to die,' because I know my chances are a lot greater."

Megan was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Her body has responded well to chemotherapy, said Dr. Michael Richards, her primary oncologist at Children's Hospital. "The hope is that she's now cured," he said, adding that only time will tell.

After completing her fifth round of chemotherapy, Megan was discharged from the hospital on Thursday.

'An unselfish gesture'

About two weeks ago, AJ's parents came to visit her in the hospital. That's when she surprised them with her wish.

Their response was shock, then tears. "We had no inkling," Lisa Bisila said Friday.

When the Bisilas realized that AJ couldn't go to Florida, she said, they were able to switch from Make-A-Wish to another organization that gave a smaller monetary gift instead. They've used it to buy gifts for AJ's siblings, in his memory.

But for a family of seven, going to Disney World is "the trip of a lifetime," she said. "The kids are never going to get a chance to do that again. We just don't have that kind of money."

Megan's wish has been approved, Semanko said. The Bisilas aren't sure yet when they'll take the vacation.

Megan's father, Cal, chokes up when he talks about her decision. "I'm just very proud of her," he said.

Her wish also had the support of Jay Loeffler, a Make-A-Wish volunteer who talks to children about what they want, then helps make their wishes come true.

The foundation never guarantees that a wish will be granted, but "I knew this was going to get approved," he said. "I was going to make sure it got approved."

Loeffler has a daughter, now a healthy graduate student, who was granted a wish after her leukemia was diagnosed when she was a teenager.

"That's why I get so emotional thinking of Megan," he said. "She reminds me so much of my daughter at that age."

Make-A-Wish gave Loeffler's daughter a meaningful family trip to Australia, so he knows how much Megan is giving up. "It's such an unselfish gesture."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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