In 2005, Zack Abel, of Franklin Park, spent his sixth birthday Sept. 5 fighting an aggressive and rare form of cancer known as rhabdomyosarcoma.
But thanks to the Greater Pennsylvania and Southern West Virginia Make-A-Wish Foundation, that memory was dwarfed six weeks later when he was granted the chapter's 7,000th wish.
"I remember the Hummer that took me to the Pittsburgh Zoo," recounted Zack, now 12 years old and cancer-free.
He will be in eighth grade at Ingomar Middle School in August. "I remember petting the Komodo dragon."
Zack's unique wish involved a storyline in which he spent the day as a paleontologist, following "dinosaur tracks" from the Pittsburgh Zoo to the Carnegie Museum and back home, where a dinosaur statue was waiting in his backyard.
"I remember realizing that my wish was a big deal when there were hundreds of people in our backyard," he said of the day that changed his life and eclipsed the now-distant memories of being in the hospital and undergoing too many medical procedures to count.
The people are gone, but the 7-foot-tall, 130-pound T. Rex statue, named Meaty, stands in his yard as a constant reminder. Meaty is one of many dinosaur replicas featured throughout Pittsburgh during DinoMite Days, a public art exhibit sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 2003.
"Not a day has gone by in the past seven years that Zack hasn't thought of his wish or that day, and it gave him the strength to continue fighting," said his mom, Natalie Abel, 41. "Many kids, like Zack, go through the same thing every day. ... Their Make-A-Wish experience is invaluable to their well-being, strength and positive outlook."
"My wish replaced the bad thoughts I had from being sick in the hospital with a happier memory, which will stay with me forever," explained Zack. "It was one of the best days of my life."
Rhabdomyosarcoma causes tumors in muscles and can occur in many places in the body.
Only a few hundred cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Zack's survival story is a testament to the power of a wish that came true, but now that he's becoming a young man, he understands that his wish now makes him powerful in his efforts to share what he's been given with others.
"Make-A-Wish has done so much for me, and I want to give back to them," said Zack. He and his mother are organizing the first Make-A-Wish 5-mile bike/walk called Make A Move, which will take place in North Park, starting at the boathouse, at 9 a.m. Aug. 19, rain or shine.
"He wants to help create a lasting memory for another child," said Ms. Abel, explaining she believes that Make-A-Wish is one of the reasons her son survived cancer. Approximately 80 percent of wish recipients survive their diseases.
Dana Antkowiak, marketing communications coordinator for the local Make-A-Wish chapter, said it's not unusual for wish recipients to want to give back to the organization as they get older.
"We've had [wish recipients'] senior projects benefit us, or they intern in the office with us. We do stay in touch with them. We've been close to Zack's family over the years, and they've been wonderful supporters of Make-A-Wish," said Ms. Antkowiak.
In the past few years, Zack has progressed to the point that he is healthy enough to ride his bike and run the trails at North Park. Since his wish was granted, Zack has attended Make-A-Wish fundraisers and spoken to classes at North Hills High School and Duquesne University.
He's also become a junior volunteer for Glade Run Adventures, a special camp for kids with behavioral issues.
"I realized that I could have a fundraiser, too," said Zack, who combined his love of running and biking into the upcoming event, which has already garnered hundreds of dollars worth of donations.
Information on Make A Move: http://friends.wish.org/008-000/page/Zack-Abel/MakeAMove.htm.
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 28, 2012) Make A Move, a bike/walk benefit for Make-A-Wish, will cover five miles Aug. 19 in North Park. The distance was reported incorrectly last week.
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 21, 2012 9:30 AM