Fulfilling a dream: Kids Wish Network sends Brighton teen with cancer to Vegas to meet U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

In late 2009, while spending time with his grandfather, 18-year-old Matt Durland blacked out.

“It panicked him more than it panicked me,” Matt remembered. “He made sure I got a doctor’s appointment.”

Matt’s grandfather insisted he go to the doctor and, in an attempt to diagnose the cause of Matt’s blackout, a nurse marked which test to give him. Matt said doctors thought he must be suffering from iron deficiency, but they needed test results to confirm the diagnosis.

“But it was something a little more major than iron deficiency,” he said.

On the day Matt learned his true diagnosis, he took his AP chemistry final with a 103-degree fever, went home and took a nap, then went to the doctor. Matt said he couldn’t have been more surprised at his doctor’s words.

“I didn’t even have any thought in my mind that it could be something like cancer,” he said.

In a fortunate twist of fate, the nurse had accidentally marked the wrong type and Matt’s white blood cell count was tested inadvertently. It was discovered that Matt suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells.

Matt began chemotherapy treatments and was required to do them at least once a week for the next year. The first couple of months of treatment were the worst, he said, as the dosages of chemo were particularly strong then.

“For the fi rst couple of months I couldn’t do much of anything,” he said. “I had to wear a mask everywhere. It was really boring. I was watching a lot of TV.”

He missed the last semester of his senior year at Brighton High School and what would have been his first semester at college last fall.

“I had no immune system to be in the classroom,” he said.

Because after he was diagnosed, Matt only had one credit to earn in order to graduate from BHS in 2010, he went up to the school regularly after school to meet with his teacher.

“I had all of my credits except for one poly sci credit,” he said. “Mr. B.C. (BHS social studies teacher Robert Bishop-Cotner) helped me after school.”

Matt completed his final high school credit and was able to attend graduation with his classmates last May.

“The doctors approved it and it was something I wasn’t going to miss,” he said.

Doctors put Matt in remission status the first couple of months after he was diagnosed. He still has to get chemo treatments about once every four weeks now, but said he’s back to feeling much more like himself again. He recently endured a surgery to implant a port through which the chemo is administered and he must be monitored carefully.

“After the fi rst couple of months my immune system started to rebuild and my life stated to get back to normal,” he continued. “I could go out and do some things with my friends and not have to worry about who was sick or not sick.”

While on a trip to the hospital for chemo last year, a nurse mentioned to Matt that he might be able to have a wish granted through national children’s charity Kids Wish Network.

One of Matt’s favorite memories of his childhood is the time he watched the flying demonstration squad of the U.S. Air Force, the Thunderbirds, with his grandfather, an Air Force veteran. Since that time, Matt has been absolutely fascinated by all sorts of aviation and he is even majoring in the subject in college. His uncle is a pilot for Delta, which also encouraged his interest in aviation, he said.

In fact, it was to a Kids Wish Network wish coordinator that Matt entrusted his wish of wanting to meet the Thunderbirds. Matt said he was thrilled when he found out he would have a chance to meet his heroes through the charity.

“I was really excited,” he said. “My original wish was to fl y with them, but I wasn’t allowed to do that because I couldn’t pass my doctor’s test, but seeing them was the next best thing.”

Before he knew it, the big day had arrived with some special surprises: accommodations at the famous MGM Grand, a trip to the Vegas strip and dinners each evening.

After the fl ight to Las Vegas earlier this month, Matt and his mother were met at Nellis Air Force Base and escorted with VIP treatment to watch an approval ceremony with an aerial performance by the Thunderbirds.

“It was really, really cool,” Matt said. “The ceremony was great. After [the performance], we met all of the Thunderbirds, a four star general and a couple of other generals, there were lots of generals. It was really amazing.”

Matt and his mom were also treated to a special tour of the base and its on-base museum.

The following day, Matt was ready to take to the air in a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon, which was a completely new experience for the aviation aficionado.

“It was quite interesting,” said Matt of the helicopter ride. “It was REALLY cool and a completely different experience flying for me…I really want to do that again sometime.”

To top it off, that evening, Matt and his mother visited the Venetian Las Vegas Hotel, Resort & Casino to see the astounding Blue Man Group in action.

On the final day of his wish trip, Matt was given a special tour of the Arizona side of the Hoover Dam that included a look inside one of the massive turbines and a look at the places where some of the scenes from the first Transformers movie were filmed.

“My wish was definitely granted,” Matt said. “It was all totally cool. I just loved seeing them so close and take pictures with the pilots and the generals. It was just fantastic.”

Kids Wish Network would like to thank the following for making Matt’s wish such a special experience: Payless Car Rental Las Vegas; MGM Grand Hotel; USAFADS “Thunderbirds” & Nellis AFB; Memphis Championship Barbecue; Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters; Bureau of Reclamation – Hoover Dam; Blue Man Group Las Vegas; and Hash House A Go Go.

The Brighton Standard Blade
Brighton, Colorado

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48,632 kids helped this last fiscal year through our many programs and services.

Our Mission

Kids Wish Network is a charitable organization dedicated to infusing hope, creating happy memories, and improving the quality of life for children having experienced life-altering situations. Kids Wish Network assists children and their families through several key programs.