For Thelma Mae Briney, the only thing better than going to Disney World with her family will be a 45-minute one-on-one visit with Donald Duck.
The 3-year-old is wild about Donald, perhaps because of the Disney cartoons she watched while tethered to a hospital bed all those months. Or, her parents added, it may be the endearing nurse at the University of Washington Medical Center who imitated the squawking duck while caring for young Thelma.
The Briney family — parents Brad and Mandy, Thelma and 6-year-old Elliott — are headed to Disney World on Saturday, courtesy of Make-A-Wish Montana, a nonprofit organization that since 1987 has granted more than 520 wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Thelma was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Stage 4 clear cell sarcoma of the kidney, in July 2015 when she was two. Doctors also found nodules in her lungs. She was airlifted to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where the affected kidney was removed and she underwent rigorous cancer treatment for eight months.
Brad put his new painting business on hold and Mandy, a second-grade teacher at West Valley School, used all of her leave time and received donated time from colleagues to be able to stay with Thelma in Seattle.
The family came home in early March, though Thelma has to return to the Seattle hospital every three months for the next two years. Right now Thelma’s lungs are looking good and her kidney function is good, Mandy said.
Thelma is an outgoing, spirited preschooler who loves to run, and life has seemingly returned to normal for the Briney family.
“She’s such a little light,” her mother observed.
Yet the fear lingers that the cancer could resurface.
“We struggle,” Mandy said. “How can you not worry? It’s hard on a family.”
The medical checkups will go on indefinitely for Thelma, first every three months for two years, then three years of appointments every six months, then annual checkups after that.
Mandy took the school year off from her teaching job and will return to the classroom next year.
The support from the Flathead Valley community got the Brineys through what surely was the most harrowing ordeal of their lives, and they are enormously grateful for friends, family and countless others who buoyed their spirits.
Schools sent videos of children singing songs for Thelma. Friends and families traveled to Seattle to visit them. Mandy used Facebook to connect with people.
“Those messages made me feel we weren’t all by ourselves,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate in so many ways. I want everyone to know how much that means to us.”
On the home front, several benefit events were held to help the family. There was a benefit in each of their hometowns — Mandy is from Big Sandy and Brad is from Polson — and in the Flathead, folks rallied at events such as a disco party at West Valley School and a “Thelma Strong” campaign to raise money and also awareness of childhood cancer.
While in Seattle, Brad said they connected with other families who were going through terrible circumstances with their children. But the camaraderie among the families often was overshadowed when other children would take a turn for the worse.
“It was heart-breaking,” Mandy said.
When Mandy first received a Facebook message from Make-A-Wish Montana a year ago, she found she couldn’t respond to it. In her mind the wish-granting program was for terminally ill children, not someone like Thelma.
After they came home in March, the organization contacted the family once again, and volunteers came over to explain the program, which embraces children with life-threatening medical conditions, and their options. Thelma’s love of Donald Duck sealed the deal for Disney World.
The trip will be a positive part of their journey with cancer.
Above Thelma’s bed a wreath filled with dozens and dozens of ribbons has a place of honor on her wall. During the various benefits held for her, each one attending could tie a ribbon to the wreath and say a prayer for Thelma.
As she continues to improve, it would seem those prayers have been answered.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad and Mandy Briney stand with their children Elliott and Thelma Mae at their home in Kalispell. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)