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Darren Bailey, Deseret News
Dakota Nash cracks a joke with his step-mother Jennifer Nash at Phoenix Children's Hospital, where he is fighting leukemia.
He has a level of wisdom about him that you don’t expect in kids his age. —Daniel Nash

PHOENIX, Ariz. — People know Dakota Nash as the “lightning strikes” kid.

At just 17 years old, his life has repeatedly been struck with unbelievable tragedies. Yet somehow the teen has been able to face every difficult twist of fate with great courage, hope and heart. 

Now, Dakota is once again fighting for his life.

“He has a level of wisdom about him that you don’t expect in kids his age,” said his father, Daniel Nash.

A brutal crime first tore Dakota’s world apart. He was just 12 when he and his 9-year-old brother were living with their mother in Orem. The boys witnessed their mother's boyfriend shoot her in the back as she ran away from him, killing her.

“Dakota was very close to his mother. He was a mama’s boy,” his father said.

After the murder, Dakota and his siblings moved to Arizona to live with their father. “We were expecting anger, some personality issues out of that, but he proved us all wrong with an attitude of looking at life a different way,” Daniel Nash said.

That attitude would continue to be tested.

Dakota received extensive counseling, but volunteering at a horse ranch that served children with disabilities seemed to help Dakota the most and perhaps prepared him for the next great challenge in his life.

In March 2010 he was hit but a car. The accident left Dakota in a coma with a severe brain injury.

“That was a hard time because every day doctors would give you the worst-case scenario to prepare you,” said Daniel Nash. “You don’t want to hear he might never wake up.”

Dakota emerged from a coma after 10 days, but he would have to learn how to walk, talk, feed and clothe himself again. Determined, he set his sights on a goal — to play on the high school basketball team. After a year and a half of intensive therapy, his neurologist finally released Dakota to play.

But a few weeks later the unthinkable happened again.

Dakota’s gums started bleeding. His father took him to the emergency room, and 20 minutes later they received the grim diagnosis: leukemia.

“The lightning now has hit three times. How does it do that? Why does it do that?” Daniel Nash asked.

Dakota admits he is looking for those same answers. But he believes there is a definite reason for his trials.

“There’s gotta be. I just don’t know what it is yet,” he said from his hospital bed at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where he received a bone marrow transplant.

The teen was in a lot of pain from treatments and infections during a visit last week, but still managed to put on a smile and crack jokes. He is able to look at his situation philosophically.

“There is no point in having a negative attitude. Negativity just brings you down all the time and positivity keeps you up,” the 17-year-old said.

That attitude has also had a huge impact on the medical teams that have treated him.

“He is just constantly worried about everyone else," recalled Stephanie Wiesen, an oncology nurse at Cardon Children’s Medical Center where Dakota received treatment before the bone marrow transplant." He would run down the halls and make jokes to lighten the mood.”

On Valentine's Day, Dakota made sure everyone on the floor of his hospital received a handmade Valentine — a typical Dakota gesture.

“I felt guilty at times where I felt like I was not giving him what he needed because he was giving me so much more in return,” Wiesen said.

Dakota routinely cheers on other patients on his floor and he continues to be an example to his classmates back home in Cottonwood, Ariz. The high school has even created a Leadership and Courage award in his honor.

While tribulation seems to stalk Dakota, his father recounted numerous ways that their family has been blessed by strangers.

“There is no limit to our gratitude. Initially when you get hit with this, you feel very alone and family members are there. But support comes from places you don’t expect and it makes you realize that people as a whole have enormous hearts and they want to give.”

Dakota’s bone marrow transplant came from an anonymous donor and was a 100 percent match — rare for a non-relative.

“This person saved Dakota’s life and we don’t even know them,” said Daniel Nash, choking back emotion.

A family from Washington is allowing the Nashes to stay in their vacation rental in Scottsdale for free. Previously, a couple answered Daniel Nash’s ad on Craigslist to rent a fifth wheel so he could sleep in the hospital parking lot. “They volunteered to drop it off whenever we needed it,” he said.

A man from their hometown who heard Dakota’s story is currently touring the country to raise money for his medical bills. “I have a hard time getting my head around what he is doing and that Dakota is a part of what drives him,” the boy's father said. Those wishing to donate to the cause can do so at fraank.org.

The warm letters and emails the family received from Utah after Tonja Nash’s murder have also never left their hearts, Daniel Nash said. “It makes you realize that people as a whole have enormous hearts and they want to give.”

Dakota said he plans to give back.

“I’ve had experiences that can help people. I can relate to them, like people who have lost their mom or dad. If they are having a hard time coping with it, I can help them through it. It’s good to talk about it,” he said.

Dakota believes his mother’s spirit has helped carry him through his many trials. “She was strong. She was a fighter," he said. "She didn’t give up, she wouldn’t back down.”

And neither will her son.

“(Life) is like a maze. There is always a start and a finish. You just have to figure out how to get there,” he said.