“What do you call an alligator in a vest?” wish kid Kaitlin poses with a smirk. After a couple of incorrect guesses, she blurts out, “An inVESTigator!” Her mom, dad, and friend Angel all start to laugh. “Dad jokes are the best kind of jokes,” she explains matter-of-factly.
Kaitlin is a spunky 15 year old with an old soul. She loves Dad jokes, doing her homework, and playing “mom” to all her friends at school, even bringing them extra food at lunch to make sure they’ve eaten enough. And, in turn, friends like Angel look out for her. They’ll meet in the morning and ask her mom Jullie how Kaitlin is doing in order to make a game plan for the day. Angel will push her wheelchair, while their other friends flank her on either side and carry her books.
They’ll also make sure she doesn’t push herself too hard. “She is really stubborn,” laughs Angel. “We’ll tell her to sit down…we protect her.”
Kaitlin also has an incredible support system at home, guiding her through her battle with a rare neurological disorder, tachycardia, fainting episodes, and ticks associated with Tourette’s Syndrome. While Kaitlin’s medical journey is relatively recent, the family has been coping with illness for 20 years; Kaitlin’s brother Keegan, a former wish kid himself, has fought a critical heart condition his entire life.
For a while, the family flew to the mainland every six months for Keegan’s open-heart surgeries and other procedures. Kaitlin, the “silent sister” as Jullie puts it, never complained—she sat by her brother’s side from morning until night. And, even when she started experiencing symptoms of her own, she remained strong, following her parents’ lead.
Jullie and her husband Jay have fought for Keegan and Kaitlin every step of the way, relying on one another and their medical community to get them through.
“They’ve been fighting for their children’s health for as long as they’ve had children,” explains wish granter Kari. “When you meet them, there’s a sense of people who understand how to prioritize things in life…people who are dialed in to what’s important and walk through their life trying to help as many people along the way as possible.”
The family is heavily involved with Kardiac Kids, a support group for children with heart conditions and their families. Jullie has even established a mentorship arm of the group.
In addition to their community, the family relies on one other very important thing to get them through: humor. From the moment you meet them, you can sense the incredible camaraderie. Kaitlin will tell her famous ‘Dad jokes.’ Keegan will poke fun at Kaitlin--and she’ll give it right back. Jay will prank Keegan and pull him out of bed in the morning. Despite the incredible struggles of having two children with critical illnesses, the family remains light-hearted and positive.
“With everything we’ve gone through, we laugh and joke…I don’t know any other way than to push forward,” explains Jullie.
Wish granter Kari fit in with the family right away. “The first words out of [Kaitlin’s] mouth were ‘Can Make-A-Wish give me a shark?’” she recalls with a smile. “So, I promptly asked her, “’Well do you have a big aquarium…or a really big bath tub?’”
Kaitlin ultimately decided on a trip to Orlando to have a shark experience at Sea World and visit the parks. A marine biologist in the making, Kaitlin was thrilled to be able to see her favorite animals up close and to touch two small bamboo sharks. She collected souvenirs as she went, her shark shoes and stuffed animals being her favorites.
One of the most special parts of the wish experience was returning to Give Kids The World as a family, where Keegan’s wish had also come true years ago. Kaitlin got to place her star in the Castle of Miracles, and the staff even located Keegan’s for them all to see. “To have both my kids have a star in the Castle of Miracles…I didn’t realize how special that is,” said Jullie.
The wish was a time of healing for the family—a time to enjoy one another’s company and escape the heavy realities of both Kaitlin and Keegan’s medical journeys.
“We didn’t realize how much our family needed it,” said Jullie. “Just to get away and be able to enjoy a week…the little things like even ice cream for breakfast…just to take away the struggles.”
For Kaitlin, the wish was a bright spot where she could “escape from the darkness.”
As she reflects, she breaks into another smile and notes an added bonus: “Plus, now I don’t have as much room on my bed from all the stuffed animals.”