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The wish patrol
By WES ALLISON
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Brandon Mathews lost a quarter of his body weight in three months. He's the only bald kid in his class. In two weeks, he faces a grueling round of treatments that will keep him in the hospital for up to five weeks. He could die.
But ask Brandon, 14, the worst part about having cancer, and you won't hear about fear or pain or the debilitating malaise brought on by chemotherapy. Instead he'll say how he misses his friends at school, racing BMX bikes, "skateboarding, track, basketball. All that good stuff."
So squeezing off a few rounds from a Glock 9mm at the St. Petersburg pistol range Friday brought a welcome blast of excitement. He was good at it, too.
"Power and control," Brandon said, happily examining the closely placed holes in the center of the paper target dummy. "I like it."
Brandon and teenagers like him, terminally or chronically ill, have lives with precious little power and control. They are consumed by tests and treatments, doctors and specialists, trips to the hospital and terrified parents. They miss a lot of school, and sports and parties and dances. Many have ports installed in their chest so powerful medications can be pumped into them. Infection is a constant threat.
Four years ago, St. Petersburg police Officer David Gatlin wanted to give these kids a chance to focus on something new and exciting, despite their illnesses. The result was the Wish Academy, a mini-police academy sponsored by the department each summer. Class was in session for Brandon and seven other teenagers from the Tampa Bay area last week. "Kids always come up to us and say, "I want to be a cop when I grow up. I want to be a cop.' A lot of these kids are not going to grow up, or some of them aren't," Gatlin said.
"Or if they do grow up, their illnesses are such that they can't be a police officer. . . . I wanted to be able to help them accomplish that goal, to know what it was like."
Participants can range from 13 to 18. This year's class included three boys with cancer, one with sickle cell anemia, one with severe intestinal and liver problems, a little girl awaiting a new heart, and a 14-year-old who is beating severe aplastic anemia, a rare immune disorder commonly known as the "boy in the bubble" disease. His brother came, too.
The academy didn't coddle them, and they seemed to appreciate that. Gatlin and Officer Kay Shelley, assisted by other instructors and officers, try to make it as realistic as possible, running them through many of the classes police recruits attend: Shooting, fingerprinting and crime scene investigation, a primer on gang intelligence, basic law.
Each also spent two evenings riding with a St. Petersburg police officer, answering calls and investigating crimes to get a feel for life on the streets.
"I met a prostitute!" Ovi Mendez Jr., 13, of Tampa exclaimed after patrolling 34th Street with an officer Thursday night.
They told her to move on, then rousted a couple of drunks. Ovi was very pleased.
The academy lasted three days, culminating with graduation Saturday night. All the students finished, despite the tiring schedule, and most said they enjoyed the break from their doctors, their treatments or worried parents.
"Anything can be fun when you're sick. Watching a dog jump into the water can be fun when you're in the hospital," said Ovi, who was diagnosed with cancer in February 1999. "Sometimes you can't do anything, and it's just boring. You want to go out and play, and you just can't do that."
Sick children react differently, and often better, than sick adults. Partly that's because their young bodies are more resilient, but they also tend to have healthier outlooks and attitudes. Doctors say that makes a huge difference.
David Gerber, who oversees patient and family services at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, said sick children need to have new experiences, just like well kids, so they can maintain that optimism.
"If you treat a kid like they're sick, they're going to be sick," he said. "If you treat a kid as a kid, those kids will learn, those kids will play, those kids will grow, and those kids will do better with their illness if it doesn't have to be a primary focus.
"We adults tend to focus on what's terrible. Kids like to focus on having fun."
By Friday afternoon, as he blasted away at the paper target at the shooting range, Ovi had just about hit law enforcement nirvana. He had wanted to attend the academy last summer but was too young, and had eagerly waited for it to come again.
Ever since he could talk, Ovi has yearned for a career in law enforcement, his mom, Yolanda Mendez, said. He's read all the Hardy Boys books and owns the Hardy Boys handbook of crime-fighting; he watches COPS on Saturday nights.
When the Make-A-Wish Foundation approached him for his wish, he said he wanted to appear in an action movie like Lethal Weapon. (Filming just ended, but be sure to check out In the Shadows featuring James Caan, Matthew Modine, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ovi. It was shot in Miami.)
He is a sweet child, a good student, with a plump, round face. Thick, dark hair has re-covered his head. He seems to have a knack for police work. Even though you would swear the recoil would knock him over, he shot the Glock 9mm on the pistol range with aplomb, scoring hit after well-placed hit.
"People have told me to try going for an attorney," Ovi said. "But I like cops. It's like solving a mystery. That's what I like."
You would never know Ovi was diagnosed in February 1999 with T-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia. His treatment has given him osteoporosis, so his bones are as brittle as an old woman's. He has seven compression fractures in his spine, and must wear a back brace. He walks slowly. It can be painful, but he never complained.
"There are some days when I don't even know how he gets out of bed," his mom said. "Ovi has taught us a lot about life, about how thankful we are for every day we have here."
Ovi's cancer is in remission, but his 108-week regimen of weekly chemotherapy won't end until March, provided all goes well. He smiles at the thought.
"Then I'm free," Ovi said. "Free from all this."
Morgan Davis, 16, of Lakeland, almost didn't make it. The night before the academy he was still a patient at University Community Hospital, finishing another round of chemotherapy. He went home and his fever spiked, and he almost had to return to UCH. But he didn't.
Morgan, hairless but stocky and robust looking, speaks with a raspy voice, a byproduct of the surgery to remove the softball-sized tumor from the outside of his heart. Doctors discovered he had Hodgkin's disease in February, after he told his mom his chest felt funny after playing basketball.
"Mom panicked and she took me to the doctor the next day," he said.
The surgeon had to cut a key nerve to his lung during the operation. It should heal, but for now he can't get enough air to fuel the energy he used to enjoy. He tires easily but was glad he made it.
"I thought it might be a good chance to get away from the hospital, to keep my mind off it," he said. "I've seen so many doctors I can't even remember half their names. I just can't get used to it."
But, he adds cheerfully, his prognosis is good. "It's the best kind of cancer you can get," he said.
The group had just finished hearing how mentally and physically grueling it is to make the SWAT team, and how tough the training is, and how proud the members are to make it. Brandon Mathews has his own grueling physical trials ahead.
Brandon of St. Petersburg, who also learned he had cancer in February, said the academy was part of a short break between his routine treatments and a difficult stem-cell transplant set to begin July 5 at All Children's.
It will begin with seven days of intense, near-fatal chemotherapy in an attempt to kill the cancer, called Ewing's disease, which started in his chest. The chemicals will kill healthy cells, too, so the stem-cell transplant will follow, in hopes of regenerating his immune system.
He expects to be confined to his hospital room for 38 days and will be prone to infection for weeks afterward. He will be checked regularly to make sure the cancer doesn't return.
Brandon insists he is not scared, but sometimes he thinks of his friend Stanley. Stanley was also a patient at All Children's, and they used to hang out together and watch wrestling on TV at the hospital.
"One night he went into the ICU, and I never saw him again," Brandon said. "When you have a friend who has cancer and he passes, that worries you."
But enough of that, he said. It was time to play hostage for a SWAT-team exercise. "I just want to get it done and get it over with so I can get better."
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