'I just love huskies': Make-A-Wish brings Florida boy to Iditarod
If you're watching the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's ceremonial start closely on Saturday, you may see a Florida boy with a lot of heart.
Brandon Walsh, 11, will ride along Fourth Avenue in the sled of musher Marcelle Fressineau. His trip to Alaska is a special visit, made possible by Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington as well as ExxonMobil.
"For whatever reason, we being in Florida, no outside influence from Alaska, he's always wanted to go to Alaska and do sled dogging," said Brandon's father, Patrick Walsh. "He's got that in his head, he wants to move to Alaska and start a LEGO Store and have a team of sled dogs."
Brandon will turn 12 on March 3, one day into the Iditarod – a milestone many of Brandon's doctors weren't sure he'd reach.
"He was born with the right side of his heart; the left side wasn't developed at all, it just wasn't there," Patrick said. "He didn't have his left ventricle."
Brandon's parents were told they had three choices: wait for a rare newborn heart transplant, take Brandon home and let him pass on his own peacefully, or try a new kind of surgery that offers only a 20 percent success rate.
"Surgery was worth a shot," Patrick said. "That's what we'll do. We went in on a Wednesday and he had gotten too sick and [doctors] said we shouldn't do that any more. Through a lot of prayer and a great medical team, by Monday he was able to have the surgery."
The surgery was part of a three-stage procedure. His next surgery was at nine months, followed by another when he was 2 and a half years old.
"At that point they told us that it should get him to about 5 years old," Patrick said. "At that point, that is what they thought they could see him living to."
Brandon, the second oldest of nine kids is on the cusp of entering his teenager years. Over the years he's found what he likes: LEGO bricks, huskies and sled-dog racing.
"I just love huskies," Brandon said. "A lot about it is the snow. Like, I have never really saw snow in a long time. Just doing stuff in snow is super fun."
When the Make-A-Wish program approached Brandon and his family about what he'd like for his wish, the answer was easy.
"He didn't have to think twice," Patrick said. "We even tried to influence him, Hawaii or other options, and he said no; Alaska was his choice."
Hannah Moderow is used to the Iditarod trail. She raced in the Junior Iditarod and now continues to work the event for Make-A-Wish.
"It's really special to be an employee now that gets to help with the Iditarod," Moderow said. "I can't remember a kid coming from Florida in recent years. Make-A-Wish is a special chance for a kid who is battling something big to experience something that is filled with hope and joy."
Brandon started learning about the Iditarod by watching the movies "Balto" and "Iron Will," watching documentaries and reading the Balto series as well as other publications. He even has a favorite musher.
"Matt Hall," Brandon said. "I just know more about him than anybody else I know."
Brandon also knows what it takes to win the Iditarod.
"You get a running start and then you hop on the thing [sled], "Brandon said. "You follow the trail and don't get off the trail."
His journey in life has been hard, but he doesn't let it keep him down.
"I have half a heart," Brandon said. "I've had three heart surgeries and almost died. I'm allergic to bees and I was stung by a bee."
On his first visit to Alaska, the big dreamer with a heart for Alaska says he doesn't want to leave.
"It's my dream," Brandon said. "I have to follow my dream."
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