| Fort Myers News-Press
Make-A-Wish Southern Florida grants a day just for Nathan
Make-A-Wish Southern Florida grants a day just for Nathan
Andrea Melendez, Fort Myers News-Press
While a critically ill 5-year-old shyly stood outside his Cape Coral home amid a flashing fire engine, screaming police cars, a pile of new toys and family members, two people — the souls behind the moment — stood to the side, reveling in the emotions.
“We just exist to help children,” Mary McClain said as she watched with her husband, Patrick, as Make-A-Wish South Florida surprised the little boy Sunday afternoon.
For the past three years, the Naples couple, via the Mary and Patrick McClain Foundation, has aided and abetted the organization with funding.
Life in crisis
The reason for their presence: Nathan Lopez, barely two weeks away from his sixth birthday and whose existence a little more than a year ago was gravely in doubt.
Nathan awoke the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2019 crying, holding his head and in obvious pain.
His parents, Yaimeris Muzuarrieta, 28, and Richard Lopez, 32, beside themselves with worry, bundled their then 4-year-old off to be examined.
The crying wake-up was a worry for the parents.
“He woke up crying, a lot,” Lopez said, but holding his head in pain was different.
Days before Thanksgiving, they went to the doctor because of Nathan’s lethargy, where the physicians said it was possibly the flu.
This time, with the crying and Nathan turning pale and vomiting, the diagnosis wasn’t as innocuous.
“An MRI found a tumor,” Lopez said. “I was in shock. It was pretty hard to describe. It makes your heart sink”
Mom agreed: “You never think that something like this is going to happen to your family.”
Nathan had an ependymoma, a kind of tumor that can form in the brain or spinal cord. It can occur at any age, but most often in young children.
Within two days, Nathan was flown to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in the Tampa area and prepped for immediate surgery.
“It was at the center of his brain, at the bottom, where there was some space to grow,” Lopez explained.
After lots of prayer and nearly 5 hours, Nathan exited surgery and within days started a regimen of radiation. Lopez drove back-and-forth to where his son was being treated at an Orlando radiation center while Muzuarrieta stayed at an area Ronald McDonald’s House to be near Nathan.
The efforts paid off. Nathan’s parents said that as of March, when he finished radiation, he was considered in remission. Still, he needs regular MRI exams to keep an eye on the tumor site.
“It can grow back. A very slight chance,” Lopez said. “They will monitor him. He will get follow-ups every three months.”
Life in motion
Nathan was tentative and shy Sunday as a phalanx of firefighters and police officers greeted him at his front door. Within minutes, he started showing some of the verve an almost 6-year-old naturally has, zipping around in an electric toy car and astride a flashy red toy motorcycle.
Asked about his day, all Nathan had time to do was briefly look up, smile, and say “good!”
Is he back to pre-Thanksgiving 2019 status? “He’s getting there,” his mom said.
He started kindergarten at Hector A. Cafferata Jr Elementary School in the fall and continues to improve, his mom said. “He really likes the school,” she said.
His older sisters, Amanda, 9, and Danielle, 12, have helped with the recovery, his parents said.
“They helped him a lot when he came back from surgery,” Richard Lopez said. “He couldn’t walk or talk. They were strong.”
Sunday, the sisters helped their little brother with his haul, tending to him as he rode the electric toys and helping clean up wrapping paper.
Because the Make-A-Wish grants are a full-family affair, everyone gets to partake. The girls also got a chance to sit in the Cape Coral Fire Department engine, take a crack at spraying a fire hose, and will undoubtedly be helping Nathan play on his new Nintendo.
Nathan had wished for games, toy cars, and rainbow-colored items of all shapes and sizes during his Make-A-Wish shopping spree. The presents came in the surprise manner because the COVID-19 pandemic scotched the usual personal shopping spree.
“Make-A-Wish recruited the Cape Coral police and fire departments to bring their vehicles out for the young car and truck lover and share in the surprise of the unveiling of Nathan’s wish list items,” said Richard Kelly, a spokesman for Wish Southern Florida.
Behind the wishes
The South Florida Make-A-Wish chapter covers 22 counties in southwest and southeast part of the state as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It raises money to grant wishes through corporate sponsorships, special events, foundation grants, and individual contributions, receiving no federal, state or United Way funding. More than 70% of its $12 million annual budget is allocated to wish granting.
That’s where the McClain’s efforts came in.
“We work with children in need,” Mary McClain said. “We sponsor a lot of events.”
That commitment is evident in the fact that the couple quit their jobs — Mary was an educator and Patrick was in the therapy sector of healthcare — to start a healthcare business that focused on children in need.
After selling the business about three years ago the Naples couple formed the Mary & Patrick McClain Foundation. One area they said they are very happy to join in on is the South Florida Make-A-Wish effort, where they are now board members.
“We have attached ourselves to them,” Mary McClain said. “We are just tremendously committed.”
The couple’s efforts are a two-state affair, both here in Southwest Florida and in the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania, where they are from originally.
Their efforts have also helped groups as diverse as the Ronald McDonald House in Pennsylvania to the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee.
“Our careers have been attached to helping children,” Patrick McClain said, adding when they sold their healthcare business the couple realized they wanted to keep giving back.
“It was an easy transition,” he said. “A natural next step.”
Don’t be put off by the couple’s low-key demeanor, their work has high-visibility. Some of the funds they have raised helped fund Nathan’s wish list as well as other similar efforts.
“It was special to us,” Patrick McClain said. “We show up to as many of these events as we can. It’s a lift for everybody.”
Sunday, the McClain’s took it all in as Nathan absorbed the love and attention of family and friends.
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