Magical Moments for a Young Girl

Magical Moments for a Young Girl

This article was published in Dayton Daily News on June 10, 2015

By Susan Gnann

In her few years of life, three-year-old Cora Gustafson has gone through more than most do in a lifetime.  Just after her first birthday, Cora started exhibiting strange behaviors.  Her stumbling, shaking and disturbing “jerky” eye movements alarmed her parents who immediately took her to the emergency department at Dayton Children’s Hospital.

“All of her tests came back negative,” remembers Cora’s mother, Kristi Gustafson.  “We were told she probably had a brain virus and would recover in a few weeks.”

Kristi and Josh Gustafson, relieved and hopeful, took their youngest daughter back home.   Unfortunately, her symptoms worsened becoming more persistent and violent.  Another trip to the ER and more scans revealed a tumor in Cora’s chest: neuroblastoma.  For a very few, one in ten million, a rare autoimmune condition can accompany this diagnosis.  Cora had also developed opsoclonus myoclonus syndrome (OMS).  OMS is characterized by cerebellar brain damage that is caused by a remote cancer.  In Cora’s case, her neuroblastoma triggered a disordered autoimmune response where her body made antibodies that aggressively attacked her brain cells causing the myriad of terrifying symptoms.

Treated by Dr. Emmett Broxson, who recently retired from Dayton Children’s Hospital after 25 years as the medical director of hematology/oncology, Cora spent two weeks inpatient after removal of the tumor and subsequent chemotherapy and antibody infusions.

“Dr. Broxson is an amazing doctor,” said Kristi.  “It is amazing how many people’s lives he has touched and saved.”

If the cancer was not enough, Cora’s family had to come to terms with the idea that she might be very disabled.  By the time she returned home, Cora had lost her speech and her muscle control.  Under Dr. Broxson’s constant care and the wonderful therapists and support at Dayton Children’s Hospital, Cora has gained back her muscle control and is “doing great”.

“She doesn’t realize that she should be feeling really crappy,” joked Kristi when she talked about Cora’s high doses of steroids and all the side-effects that accompany her treatment.  “She is an engaging, amazing, happy and wonderful girl.  She will likely need monthly antibody infusions for the rest of her life.”

For Cora’s older sisters, Ava, Liezl and Quincy, this was a lot to take in.  As a family, the Gustafsons have worked hard to be positive and happy and not let worry and anxiety about Cora’s condition overwhelm them.  When they learned Cora qualified for a wish through the Dayton Chapter of A Special Wish Foundation, they were very excited.

Since her diagnosis, Cora has had nine rounds of chemotherapy and regular infusions of antibodies, countless scans and blood tests, and therapies to improve the effects of her brain damage.  Finally healthy enough, Cora and her family went to Give Kids the World Village (GKTW) for her third birthday.  GKTW is a 70-acre nonprofit resort located near Florida’s family attractions where children with life-threatening illnesses are treated to a weeklong fantasy vacation.  There the Gustafsons found a place where they and other families could come together in community and lean on one another while enjoying a trip of a lifetime.

“I thought it would be sad,” said Kristi, “but it was such a positive and happy place.  We could have just stayed there for the entire trip.”

The family visited Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, but by far the favorite part of the trip for Cora was meeting Mary Poppins.  She made Cora feel so special, seeking her out to create a magical moment.  Disney cast members visit GKTW Village twice a week to connect directly with wish families to give them more time and attention.

Cora’s trip was also made possible by the University of Dayton’s Distance 4 Dreams (D4D).  A unique service organization, D4D sponsors the Special Wish of a local child by raising money to run the annual Disney Marathon.

It truly takes the entire community for wishes come true for children like Cora.  The Dayton Chapter of A Special Wish Foundation coordinates these efforts to make these dreams a reality.  To get involved, please visit the organization’s website at www.aspecialwish.org or 937-223-WISH (9474).