By Tim Eberly
In her pint-sized, red pleated dress with white-laced sleeves, Mariah Sheehy twirls around until her momentum lifts the fabric gently into the air and makes her head delightfully dizzy.
She calls it her "spinner dress."
"I wore the spinner dress to my party," says the 3-year-old Mariah as she slows to a standstill in the kitchen of her mother's Big Sandy home.
Special occasions call for favorite outfits, and Mariah's cake-and-pizza party at a Big Sandy restaurant on Nov. 18 surely qualified. It commemorated the completion of an extravagant playground built in the front yard of the her family's future home, tucked in the west side of the Bear Paw Mountains.
Two weekends ago, the playground, stocked with an electronic merry-go-round, a yellow-tubed slide, a Rocket Rider, a tire swing and seated swings, arrived courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Granting elaborate wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses between the ages of 2 and 17 is the mission of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a 21-year-old nonprofit organization that turns 10,000 wishes into reality each year.
Specialists from the Seattle-based Children's Hospital and Medical Research Center diagnosed Mariah on Sept. 10, 1999, with neuroblastoma, a rare and debilitating nerve cancer found in children, when she was just 15 months old. Doctors found an orange-sized tumor next to her adrenal gland, prompting six rounds of chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant and a dose of radiation treatment. This April, Mariah's mother, Marjie Sheehy, took her daughter to Seattle for a one-year checkup, and doctors officially pronounced her in full remission.
"Mariah's not supposed to be here, technically," said the 43-year-old Marjie, a reading specialist at Rocky Boy Elementary School. "The medical staff had only one explanation, that it's a miracle. She's been through hell and back but she survived."
Near the end of Mariah and Marjie's 11-month stay in Seattle Marjie's 7-year-old son, Corey, stayed in Montana for the duration with his father a social worker referred them to Make-A-Wish with Marjie's permission. Mariah's disease, and her ensuing transplant, made her an ideal candidate for the program.
"That was a fun wish," said Leslie Woodfill, a manager with the Make-A-Wish Foundation who coordinated the creation of Mariah's playground. "First of all, she is the sweetest little girl. She was so cute when she first saw the horses. She said, Look, they even have eyeballs.' I'll tell you, her family is some of the neatest people I've ever met."
With the unassembled parts of the playground piled in the back of their pickup, Woodfill and her family traveled from Spokane, Wash., last Friday. Over a two-day period, the Woodfills collaborated with the Sheehy family and friends to erect the outdoor recreation set. Some members of the Sheehy family cooked hamburgers for the laboring crew.
From her left eye a tumor in her head stole the vision from her right eye Mariah first noticed the pink extension cord attached to the merry-go-round when Marjie showed her the finished product. "Pink's my favorite color," said Mariah, whose playground is worth $12,000 $2,000 more than the cost of the average wish.
Then she leapt in the air when she saw the painted horses, and rode all three until the music stopped.
"I like my playground," Mariah said through a dimpled smile. "I just like to play with it."
Employees from Make-A-Wish are sensitive to siblings of wish recipients, so Corey, a first-grader at Big Sandy Elementary School, received a construction set of Legos.
"He loved them," Woodfill said. "A lot of times (siblings) feel like they're forgotten because the child that is sick gets so much attention." Corey also has free reign of the playground with Mariah.
Many of the children offered wishes from Make-A-Wish chose a trip to Disney World or Disneyland. Mariah originally entertained that prospect she wanted to meet Barney but Marjie decided against it for several reasons. Mariah shies away from costumed characters ("She still gives me a death grip when she sees Santa," Mariah said.) and Barney is not permitted to talk to visitors at the Disney theme parks. A meeting with the characters from the television show "Out of the Box" was also briefly considered.
The idea for a playground blossomed last year when Marjie and Mariah returned from Seattle and moved with Corey to Havre. Because of her condition, the family settled as close as possible, just several blocks away, to Northern Montana Hospital. Last spring, Marjie frequently took Mariah and Corey to Sunnyside Elementary School to frolic in the adjacent playground. "I guess it was then that she decided she wanted a slide," said Marjie, a single parent.
Ironically, Mariah doesn't use the slide on her new playground; it's too big and fast. But that doesn't bother Corey. He makes frequent trips down its winding path.
Symptoms of the cancer became visible in August 1999. Around the time of her 15-month "well-baby" checkup at Northern Montana Hospital, when doctors declared Mariah in perfect health, she developed an unexplained bruise under her left eye. Also, several times when Marjie looked through her rear-view mirror at her daughter in the back seat of their car, she would notice Mariah's right eye wandering. So when Mariah developed a sudden ear infection, Marjie made a beeline for the hospital.
After doctors tested her unsuccessfully for meningitis and Reye's syndrome, Mariah underwent a CT scan. "I was told she had abnormalities in her head," Marjie said.
That night, a jet transported the patient to Seattle, where she was diagnosed with cancer.
Shortly after, the right side of Mariah's head palsied, causing her face to droop. Though doctors were able to shrink the tumor near her kidneys to the size of a walnut, legions of tumors were discovered in her head. "They told me she had so many (tumors) that they couldn't count," Marjie said.
Months of chemotherapy and blood work followed. In the midst of her chemo, with a weak immune system, Mariah caught a highly contagious respiratory virus and was put in isolation for nine days. Two months later, doctors found an aneurysm in her left groin. Two days after the surgery to remove the aneurysm, doctors diagnosed her as being "septic."
"She had nothing to fight the infection," said Marjie, who stayed at the Ronald McDonald House with Mariah for seven months, and then moved with her to the Pete Gross House, a home built for stem cell and bone marrow transplant patients.
To counter the infections, Marjie donated some of her white blood cells to her ailing daughter. Mariah was in the intensive care unit for eight days.
"We were one of the fortunate ones. We came back from ICU," Marjie said. "Most of the cancer kids that go don't come back."
On Dec. 27, 2000, four days after she was unofficially declared in remission, doctors removed the shrunken tumor, along with her left kidney.
Prayers and letters from friends and friends of friends poured in from Montana and neighboring states, and from countries as far away as New Zealand, Australia and China. "I am convinced that is why she is alive," Marjie said of the support.
The Big Sandy community pulled together and held a dinner auction to generate contributions for Mariah's huge hospital bills.
"I stopped counting at two million (dollars)," Marjie said. "I'm getting statements now for things that were done last April."
Little remained the same when Marjie and Mariah returned to Hill County. They couldn't move back to their old house, located about 50 yards from their halfway-constructed future residence, because it had accumulated too much dust and grime for Mariah's unsteady immune system. And when the family moved to Havre, Mariah spent much of her time quarantined. "We couldn't go anywhere," Marjie said. "She couldn't be in crowds. They told me at first that if she caught a cold, she could catch pneumonia." Movies, concerts, church and pets of any kind were all banned.
Corey, however, relished the isolation with his family after the lengthy separation. "We slept three in a bed, and mom was the jelly," Marjie said.
Gary & Leo's IGA allowed Marjie to phone in her grocery orders, and a volunteer from St. Jude's Catholic Church would pick up the goods. A host of volunteers from St. Jude's also baby-sat for Marjie on occasion, as well as providing miscellaneous services for the family.
With the exception of a few trips to the emergency room at Northern Montana Hospital, Mariah has remained hospital-free since she departed Seattle on April 4, 2000. The chemotherapy has sapped much of Mariah's appetite, but Marjie provides her with supplemental nutrition through a tube barely protruding from her stomach.
For the next two years, Marjie will escort Mariah to Seattle every six months for a checkup. On their trips, they take advantage of "Angel Flights," provided by private pilots who have their own planes and use them for charitable reasons.
Administrators from Rocky Boy Elementary School granted Marjie a two-year leave of absence for the ordeal, but she returned to work this August. To do so, she hired a live-in nanny, Katherine Stahl, to look after Mariah during the day.
"My response to people now is that we're getting better," Marjie said. "When the patient gets better, we all get better. Cancer doesn't just affect the patient; it affects the whole family."
Marjie and her children are scheduled to move into their new home before Christmas, uniting Mariah with her playground.
"When we get moved out to the house, she'll be out there playing whenever the weather's warm enough," Marjie said.