'Bigger than the game': Lone Peak football players and cheerleaders grant wishes to 2 terminally ill children

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24 2013 4:05 p.m. MST

Wirkus instructed Abby and Hunter, who was born with autism and a bilateral cleft lip and palate, to undergo testing at Primary Children’s Hospital.

“We took them up and I started crying because this overwhelming feeling of, ‘OK it’s over.’ For some reason I knew we were going to find out,” Kathy said. “We got home and Dr. Wirkus called. He said, ‘I need you and Don to come in without the kids tomorrow.’”

She lowers her eyes in memory. As if it were yesterday, she clears her throat, unable to mask her heartache, and mourns. “I said, ‘I know you know what it is. Will you please tell me? He said, ‘I believe it's something called Morquio syndrome.’”

His fears were confirmed. Abby and Hunter were born with Morquio A, an extremely rare, inherited disease that camouflages internal deterioration without necessary, combative enzymes. Those affected develop an array of health difficulties and often live only through adolescence to early adulthood.

“I think you come to the realization that their life span is going to be shorter, but you don’t ever accept it,” Don says. “From the day we found out we’ve been preparing for this big window, but I think the closer we get the more sorrowful it’s going to be.”

Uncertainties plague the household as exhaustion infects the mind. Hardships confined within hospital walls magnify conventional stresses. “It affects everything from your self-worth to anxiety over whether your child is going to live another day,” Kathy says.

Collectively, Abby and Hunter have endured more than 40 surgeries, submerging the family into million-dollar medical bills. “Every month we’re barely making it,” Kathy says. Several times they’ve struggled to survive invasive procedures. Doctors once placed toe tags and mistakenly asked to harvest organs, assuming they’d been called home.

On a late autumn evening this year, Abby wished she would.

“Abby was crying this one night and I was trying to rock her,” Kathy recalls. “I gave her morphine to try and ease the pain. It wasn’t working and somehow Wyatt heard her cry. He walked in halfway asleep, put his arms around her, held her and said, ‘Abby, I love you. It’s going to be OK. I’m here for you and I’m never going to leave you.’

“She said, ‘Wyatt, it’s so hard. I’m so sorry. I just can’t anymore.' He said, ‘I need you to do this for me. The pain will ease; just keep breathing.’ He stayed up with her until he left for school that day."

That was the day the cheerleaders said, "Come here, Abby."

...

"The Star-Spangled Banner" finishes minutes before kickoff. It’s 7 p.m. on another Friday night. Lone Peak emerges from the locker room as the Harwoods excitedly watch from the grandstands.

Personable and outgoing, Abby initiates a conversation with two bright-eyed boys watching the cheerleaders. “I’ll introduce you to some of them,” Abby said confidently. Forever, a decision is frozen in time. It was that moment the squad extended an invitation for her to cheer the routines she’d already memorized — permanently.

Uniform included.

“I remember when I was little I’d always look up to the cheerleaders,” Alayna Garrity explained. “Seeing her in that position was hard. Why not make her dream?”

“That gave her purpose,” Kathy says. “Even in those darkest moments of sheer pain she could keep going. I don’t think they realize how she was literally dying. I know very well it does come down to: Are you going to take that next breath, or are you not?”

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