When the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered little Samantha Cassidy of Edgartown the opportunity to realize a dream, she had some trouble making up her mind. Struggling to recall the many things she considered, the ten-year-old cancer survivor lists a visit to a TV set, a concert, and a trip to Disneyworld. Last week her mom, Debbie Grant, recalled Samantha’s first request. “She wanted to meet Betty Crocker. She was so sick at the time she doesn’t remember.”
In the end Ms. Cassidy did get an introduction that became very influential in her life, when she and her family flew to Ireland in July to meet her “adopted” donkey, Timmy. The Make-A-Wish Foundation paid for Samantha, her mother, her father, Mike Cassidy, and her brother Gus and sister Anna to fly to Ireland. They also covered all their expenses — from food and lodging to a rental car. Ms. Grant’s mother came along, and Samantha’s other brother traveled from Germany to meet up with the family briefly.
The inspiration for the dream trip was planted two years earlier when Samantha’s sister, Anna Hayes, made a trip to Ireland with Elaine Cawley-Weintraub’s Irish history class at the regional high school. They visited the Donkey Sanctuary in County Cork, an institution that has rescued over 3,000 donkeys — mostly abandoned work animals. Anna decided to make a donation in Samantha’s name that entitled her to adopt a donkey for a year.
During her illness, Samantha was kept posted on her 19-year-old donkey’s progress through periodic emails. At one point, after receiving an update, she said to her mother, “I wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to meet Timmy.”
Ms. Grant recalls that Make-A-Wish had contacted the family immediately after Samantha’s diagnosis of B-lymphoblastic lymphona in April 2007. They considered making a trip during the treatment, but they were reluctant to take a critically ill child far from the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana Farber Instiute in Boston where she was being treated. They opted to wait until the chemotherapy treatment was complete.
The family’s ordeal was long, painful, and trying. After an initial hospital stay of six weeks, Samantha and her parents made weekly trips to Boston for a year and then went every three weeks for another year. The chemo and steroids were very hard on Samantha, who was only six at the time of her diagnosis. She missed about a third of the two school years when she was sick, but somehow she was able to keep up, sometimes attending school in a wheelchair, sometimes not making it through a full day. Ms. Grant notes that The Edgartown School staff was very accommodating to Samantha’s schedule and to her own as an assistant teacher. This fall Samantha will enter fifth grade.
Ms. Grant and Mr. Cassidy have a long list of local people and institutions to whom they owe gratitude. “The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room was truly amazing with her,” she said. “They were in constant communication with Boston.” The family developed complete confidence in the hospital staff. “The care was truly incredible.”
Ms. Grant had high praise for visiting nurse Audrey Harding, who helped Samantha throughout all of the trials she faced during her illness. “They developed an incredible trust,” she said. “Samantha trusted her with everything.”
Friends and neighbors became indispensible throughout the ordeal. “The only way we got through was with the help of the community,” Ms. Grant said. “People cleaned our toilets, helped us out financially, and helped us in every way imaginable. We couldn’t have gotten through it without the community.”
Her parents speak of Samantha as a very brave little girl who never hesitated to submit to treatments that often made her sick and miserable. The family persevered and kept a positive attitude throughout. Mr. Cassidy said, “People asked me ‘How do you do it.’ In an odd way it simplified our life. It came down to what’s important and what’s not. Taking care of Samantha was the priority and everything else was secondary.”
The trip to Ireland, which included stops in Blarney, Killarney, and Limerick, proved to be a way to resolidify a family that had been challenged by Samantha’s illness. “It was a nice way to wrap up the whole experience,” Ms. Grant said. “We were all able to get together. Our family had been apart because of this. We couldn’t take a family vacation, and we weren’t able to be as available for Gus and Anna.”
The visit to the Donkey Sanctuary may have a further positive impact on the family. Anna, who will start studies in animal science at the University of Vermont this fall, has been invited to do an internship at the veterinary clinic affiliated with the sanctuary. When a donkey foal was born shortly after the family’s visit, it was christened Cassidy in Samantha’s honor.
Mr. Cassidy notes that Samantha’s prognosis is very good. He says that 95 percent of kids who complete the treatment are cancer-free. Today, a very energetic and enthusiastic Samantha plays lacrosse and attended the Vineyard Playhouse’s theater camp all summer. She’s looking forward to the coming school year. She expresses continuing interest and pride when she talks about her donkey, Timmy, but it’s obvious that friends and activities have taken center stage in her life.
However, the family would like someday to return to the Donkey Sanctuary to visit Timmy and Cassidy. “We were told that because donkeys live up to 50 years we’ll have plenty of time to visit,” Mr. Cassidy said.
And both parents are quite sure that Anna, the animal lover, will accept the sancturary’s offer at some point. “This little donation to the donkey sanctuary might be growing into a lifelong connection with these people in Ireland,” Mr. Cassidy said.