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For Dying Adults, Dreams Take Flight

From reunions to last-minute weddings to visits with celebs, foundation fulfills the wishes of the terminally ill.

September 27, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When doctors discovered that Vanessa Anderson, 47, had advanced breast and stomach cancer, they gave the gospel church choir singer one year to live. But rather than dwell on her misfortune, Anderson decided to make the most of her remaining days.

She turned to the Dream Foundation, an adult version of the groups that grant last wishes of dying children. Her dream--to record the hit tune "Unbreak My Heart" in a professional studio with its author, celebrated pop songwriter Diane Warren--was fulfilled in August.

"I'm not here forever. I'm just here on borrowed time like everybody else," said Anderson, who undergoes chemotherapy every week. "I'm in a healthy denial."

On Thursday night, Anderson, who usually sings at St. John Full Gospel Deliverance Church in her hometown of Hartford, Conn., will be among those performing at a benefit for the Dream Foundation in Santa Monica that will feature such popular entertainers as Melissa Etheridge, Kenny Loggins, Graham Nash and David Crosby.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 2, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name--In Wednesday's story about the Dream Foundation, a group that grants the wishes of terminally ill adults, the name of Marcel Mir was misspelled.

Since its creation in 1994, the unorthodox Santa Barbara nonprofit organization says it has helped ease the psychic pain of more than 1,400 terminally ill adults. While the well-known Make-A-Wish Foundation and other groups grant wishes to dying children, the Dream Foundation bills itself as the only national organization that bestows such gifts on dying adults, who, supporters say, are no less needy.

Dying adults must grapple with a raft of emotional issues that are often complicated by marriage, family and a deep sense of their own mortality, said Dream Foundation founder Thomas Rollerson. The public often overlooks the tremendous strain that terminal illness places not only on the adult sufferers, but also on their children and spouses, he said.

"We adults have more baggage, more rings around our trees," said Rollerson. "The dream gives them something to focus on. And there's often nothing else going on in their life besides the illness. It's something positive in a time of darkness."

The most common desire is a reunion with relatives. Many adults want a trip to Disney World for the whole family. Some want eleventh-hour weddings to longtime loves. And in a celebrity-driven era, meetings with famous people are a frequent wish. The foundation has arranged encounters between patients and such people as Glenn Close, Garth Brooks and Rosie O'Donnell.

"Some of our celebrity wishes could be written off as frivolous," Rollerson concedes. But "for an adult, the wishes are much less about fantasy than they are about recognition from a mentor that validates them as a human being. They regain some of the dignity they lost in their fight against the illness."

And for the families it touches, the organization has become an important support network, Rollerson said. "I got into a big argument the other day with a man who said, 'What's the point of sending someone to Disney World?' " Rollerson recalled hotly. "I told him it was about restoring dignity to a mother whose kids are used to going to chemotherapy with her. She was no longer caring for her children; they were caring for her."

Ara Johnson of Ashland, Ore., requested such a trip last year with her husband and two children, 9 and 14. The youngsters have spent the past four years with their terminally ill mother as she undergoes chemotherapy. Johnson, 46, has breast cancer that has spread into her lungs. A year ago, she learned of the Dream Foundation from an online support group for women with breast cancer. The Disney trip was something her husband, a Head Start teacher, could never have afforded.

"The biggest gift was for our children to have a childhood for four days," Johnson said weakly, in a voice that wavers between a whisper and a sigh. "This has been very hard on them emotionally for the past four years--half my youngest child's life. It was so wonderful to see the delight on their faces. It was more fun than you can imagine. I have very good memories. Ultimately, that's what we have--our memories."

It didn't stop with the fulfillment of her wish. In May 1999, Johnson and her husband went to a foundation fund-raiser in Santa Barbara that was "like stepping into a fairy tale."

Making Last Days on Earth Better

Supporters say it should come as no surprise that dying adults find solace in such simple comforting acts at a time when their lives have been turned into emergencies and their homes into hospitals.

"Everybody's afraid to die," said foundation supporter and honoree David Crosby, who faced death before receiving a transplant to replace his drug-and-alchohol-damaged liver. "Everybody's desperately afraid in their last time on Earth. This is about trying to make somebody's last time better."

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