HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Michelle McConnell, 15, is a tall, energetic young girl who enjoys spending time with her family, being outdoors, watching the "How to Train Your Dragon" films and has a particular affinity for the United States Air Force.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a fast-growing form of bone cancer. The disease has limited treatment options, explained her mother, Andrea McConnell.
Michelle's right leg was amputated at the thigh after cancer was discovered in her femur about nine months following her initial diagnosis, her mom said.
"We are thankful and grateful that she is alive and still with us," McConnell said.
On Tuesday, the brown-haired teenager was given the chance of a lifetime through Make-A-Wish Utah to become an "airman" at Hill Air Force Base. Her mother said it was "fabulous" watching her daughter live out her wish to ''serve" as a military member for one glorious day.
"She has smiled and laughed and really felt like she was alive and a part of something bigger than she ever dreamed she could be a part of," she said.
During her day in uniform, Michelle was able to fight a fire at a training facility, go up 100 feet in the "bucket" on a hook and ladder truck with her mom and sister, as well as work with the 75th Air Base Wing security on a ride along, in addition to working as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.
Her mother said watching her young daughter participate in such meaningful activities was quite gratifying.
"She has such a tender heart and you can see what great men and women these (military) people are," McConnell said. "They are such amazing people."
Last year, Michelle was part of a group who became pilots for the day. Her parents said she enjoyed her experience so much, she wanted to become a member of the Air Force.
"The challenges that she's had with her health and trying to fit back into society has been more (difficult) that we could have ever dreamed we would have to bear," she said. Through it all Michelle has shown exceptional "courage and determination to live," she noted, and this wish was an experience the family was glad to have shared together.
"To do this and to know that this was her wish and this is what she wanted, it makes your heart sing as a parent," McConnell said. "Watching your child trying to take everything in and not lose a moment of it is just breathtaking for a parent to watch."
For Javie Blanco, chief of Fire and Emergency Services at the base, being chosen to serve as part of a child's Make-A-Wish experience was both "humbling and inspirational."
"For the millions of things she could have picked, coming on to an Air Force base for her support of the military — it's very humbling," he said. Upon being notified of the wish and his unit's participation in the activities, he said the first thing he did was tell his children about it, Blanco said.
"It's awesome," he said. "She is going to have an open invite after this as well to come out and see other facets of emergency services."
He said the experience of having Michelle visit has gotten his crew talking among themselves about life and reflecting on what is truly important.
"It shows a lot for somebody at that young of an age to do what she's doing — it's incredible," Blanco said.
Last year, Make-A-Wish Utah granted 210 wishes, explained wish coordinator Christina Wright. This year, the organization is on pace to grant 220 wishes. She said this particular wish was special because it allowed the organization to work within the local community to make it happen.Comment on this story
"Wishes that are here — that we actually get to involve the community and be a part of — are really cool," she said. "It's inspiring because we get to be a part of it. We actually get to see it and remind ourselves why we do what we do."
Because wishes frequently involve traveling to other places, she said being able to arrange fulfilling experiences locally is particularly gratifying and it helps children in more ways than previously realized, she said.
"Research is actually showing now that a wish is helping a child (by) giving them the physical and emotional strength to help fight that critical illness, so it's really cool to be a part of that and watch that happen," Wright said.