Whale of a dream made real

Cancer survivor takes trip to Southeast to see orcas

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2000

It took five trips, but Matthew Silverman's wish finally came true -- big time.

Matthew, a 16-year-old who was diagnosed with a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on Thanksgiving of 1998, wanted to see orca whales in the wild. The Make-A-Wish foundation brought him to Juneau from his home near San Jose, Calif., and put him on a boat. But for four trips, orcas proved elusive.

Then, last Wednesday, Matthew and his family saw a show to remember.

``It was incredible,'' Matthew said. ``It was just great. I don't think I can describe it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.''

Even Capt. Larry Dupler of Orca Enterprises Professional Whale Watching, who makes up to three whale-viewing trips a day, was impressed by the sight.

The orcas were on the hunt -- attacking and wounding a porpoise, slowing it down to let their young get to it. Matthew, his parents Anna and Joel, and his siblings, Jeffery and Lauren, got to see the action from start to finish.

``I've never seen whales in the wild like this before in my life,'' Matthew said.

``We all had a wonderful time,'' Anna added. ``My husband and I are just as happy as we can be, and very happy, very thankful.''

The trip was a welcome break for the family, which has been living ``in three-week cycles'' since Matthew's diagnosis, Anna said.

``(After) treatment, he was sick for a full seven days,'' she said. ``By day eight he could get back to school and start functioning, start catching up with what he missed, and the next week would be spent working ahead.''

Then Matthew would return to the hospital for another round of chemotherapy.

His diagnosis came as a surprise to the family. Matthew exhibited no symptoms until his lymphoma reached what's called stage four; by the time he was hospitalized at Stanford's Children's Hospital, he had at least a dozen tumors throughout his body. The largest fractured his spine.

Make-A-Wish contacted the family through the hospital. The nonprofit organization grants the wishes of children age 2 to 17 with life-threatening illnesses or conditions.

Initially, Matthew rejected their offer.

``I felt like I didn't really deserve it,'' he said.

But after half a year of treatment, he changed his mind.

``All these people, they wanted to be nice,'' Matthew said. ``I figured I would do the same thing for someone else if they wanted to do that.''

His wish -- to see orca whales in the wild -- stemmed from the early days of treatment, when his mother showed him the movie ``Free Willy.''

``When he was very sick and very much in pain, the only thing that seemed to comfort him was watching `Free Willy,''' Anna said. ``He'd watch it five, six times a day.''

In some ways, the movie tapped into an old interest.

``When I was a little kid, I read those books about humpback whales and stuff,'' Matthew said. ``Then sometimes I would watch nature documentaries about them.''

As his interest grew, Matthew and his father began to research orcas on the Internet. His parents promised him that when he recovered, the family would go whale-watching in Alaska.

It was a dream, Anna said.

``I never thought we would make it here,'' she added. ``If it hadn't been for Make-A-Wish, I don't think any of this would have happened.''

Even the orca-less trips provided their share of memorable moments. On one voyage, humpbacks surfaced right beside the boat.

``They came up so close you could actually smell their breath when they breathed up,'' Matthew said.

Wish made real, Matthew and his family returned home Friday to hope for the best. In November, Matthew will have been in remission for a year.

``His life changed. All of our lives changed, and we'll never be the same,'' Anna said of the experience. ``But we love each other. It's a tough way to have to learn and a tough way to grow up, but no matter what happens, he's a very content and mature person, and very grateful for his life and very happy for every day.''

A number of local business contributed to Michael's wish. In addition to Dupler and Orca Enterprises, they were Rent-A-Wreck; Mt. Juneau Inn Bed and Breakfast; Alaska Travel Adventures; Gold Creek Salmon Bake; Coastal Helicopters; Juneau Trolley Company; Mount Roberts Tram; Adventure Bound; Super Bear; Elgee, Rehfeld & Funk CPAs; and Julie Olson, a Make-A-Wish volunteer.

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