By Erin J. Murrin
Marietta Daily Journal Staff Writer
Throughout his life, David Baxter of Marietta has been unable to escape the affect of cystic fibrosis. Not because he is suffering from the disease, though. Baxter’s brother died from the disease at age 3. Fast forward many years and Baxter and his wife, Cherie, have not only one child with CF, but two. “We are one of two families in the state of Georgia that have two children with CF,” he said.
His two youngest daughters, Madison, 7, and Autumn, 5, receive breathing treatments twice every day and make frequent hospital visits which put a strain on the young parents, who also have a 10-year-old daughter, Ashley. Baxter, who is a contractor for BellSouth, works while his wife works toward a nursing degree from Kennesaw State University. They perform all of their duties using one car. “I’m 32 years old and I have more grey hair than my mom,” Baxter said. “We’ve struggled for the last 10 years trying to make a better life for ourselves.”
Those stressors, obligations and worries, however, were washed away last weekend when Baxter and his family received the gift of a lifetime. They were chosen for a free trip to Walt Disney World compliments of Bert’s Big Adventure, a nonprofit organization through Atlanta radio station Q100 that takes chronically and terminally ill children and their families to the Magic Kingdom. Before their trip, Madison and Autumn shared what they were looking forward to the most. “(I want to see) Mickey and Minnie Mouse and all the princesses,” she said. “I want to give them all a hug.” Madison, although she was also looking forward to meeting the princesses, had a more daring plan to execute. “I want to ride all the really scary (rides),” she said.
Nominated for the trip by nurses at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, the Baxter’s departed Feb. 22 with a grand bon voyage celebration at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. “That was cool because the Braves dancers and Falcons cheerleaders showed up,” Baxter said.
After the 14 children and their families arrived in Florida, the real fun began. Baxter said every fantasy or wish the girls had was more than fulfilled during their stay at Disney World. Between meeting all the Disney characters, riding all the rides and taking a private safari of the animal kingdom, the Baxter family barely found time to sleep. But Baxter admits the sleep deprivation was much more fun and stress-free than the kind they face a home when his wife has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to administer breathing treatments.
“They had surprises all around the corner,” Baxter said. “The Disney people really took care of us. We got private time with the princesses. It was just the dream of a lifetime.” Jenn Fallin, coordinator for Bert’s Big Adventure and former Bert Show employee was smitten with the Baxter girls. “(Autumn) has the coolest personality of any kid I’ve ever met,” she said. “She wore the adults down. Madison is the opposite of Autumn. She’s very quiet and reserved and she takes care of the other sisters.” Fallin said it was wonderful seeing the girls bond with the other children. “To be able to find other kids around them…who can understand was special,” she said. “These families were able to make strong relationships.”
Even though Madison’s time was cut short by falling ill – she is currently still in the hospital for treatment – Fallin said Madison made the best of every moment. “She was pretty much sick the whole weekend but she didn’t complain at all,” she said. “This girl is such a positive spirit. …”
Fallin said the Baxter girls seemed the most attracted to the rides at Disney World. “They wanted to try every ride,” she said. “They went on the Test Track (ride) which gets up to 60 miles per hour. They wanted to go on it again and again. They are just little daredevils.”
Baxter said his family conserved money while eating so they could spend more money buying things for the girls. But really, they wanted for virtually nothing. “I couldn’t believe how much stuff the Bert Show bought the girls,” he said. “That’s what touched me the most, the stuff I couldn’t buy for them, (the girls) would get from Bert. When we got back, we had two boxes of stuff for them.” The family also received a $500 Kroger gift card, $200 in cash and a $100 American Express card, which Baxter said helps his family more than The Bert Show members possibly know.
Baxter knows that many medical advancements have been made since his brother died of CF. But he acknowledges that his girls still have a limited life expectancy. (The life expectancy for someone with CF is about 30.) During the Disney World trip, he captured as many moments as he could on his camera. “I took 600 pictures,” he said. “I did that on purpose because Madison has always been in bad shape and I want to do everything I can to remember her for the rest of my life. I got those pictures because (that trip) is something I’ll never have again.” If he ever has the chance to take his family back to Disney World, he plans to simply to see his daughter’s dreams come true again. But it will be hard to beat the trip with Bert’s Big Adventure. “No amount of money in the world could give you the experience they had, not even if you are rich,” he said. “The song really sums it up, ‘It’s a whole new world.’”
(This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal on 2/25/2007)