Story and photo by Rick Emert
Since their daughter, Tiffany, was born with spina bifida five years ago, Sgt. Robert McPherson III and his wife, Shelby, have learned that life isn’t easy.
After years of taking Tiffany’s wheelchair apart to fit the Family of six into its minivan, a wish granted by Operation Once in a Lifetime, Head and Shoulders and NFL player Troy Polamalu has made life a little easier for the McPhersons.
As part of Operation Once in a Lifetime’s Heroic 7 Wishes program, the McPhersons got a free minivan Nov. 27 with an inset trunk that fits Tiffany’s wheelchair perfectly, Shelby said.
A Family friend contacted Operation Once in a Lifetime on the McPhersons’ behalf. The nonprofit organization’s founder, Patrick M. Sowers – a former Soldier – sent an e-mail during the summer to ask what the Family would wish for, said Robert, who is assigned to the 361st Aviation Detachment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, at Butts Army Airfield.
“I said, ‘We really could use a wheelchair van. They’re pretty expensive. We can’t afford one right now,'” Robert said. “We were … pricing the lifts and different things like that. The van that we had, we would have to take the wheelchair apart to get it in there. They said they would see what they could do as far as putting us in for (the wish).”
In September, the McPhersons learned they were among the 10,000 finalists for the program; two weeks later, they learned their wish would be one of the seven granted by Operation Once in a Lifetime, Shelby said.
“I thought for sure that there were too many other more deserving people that needed it more than us,” she said. “I started screaming. I was so excited I couldn’t talk; I was crying so much.”
The organization couldn’t exactly grant the McPhersons’ wish.
“They couldn’t (get) us the wheelchair van, but we had also told them that … a van that could actually fit her wheelchair, so we wouldn’t have to take it apart, would help out a lot,” Robert said. “They ended up getting us a Kia where the trunk is inset and we can actually put the wheelchair in there without taking it apart.
“I told them for right now that would help us. We could also get an after-market lift or fold-up ramp put in later on. Medicaid and that kind of program would cover that. We were looking at doing that later on.”
Although Tiffany was approved for an electric wheelchair, that will have to wait until the Family gets the modified ramp for its new van, Robert said.
Even without the wheelchair ramp, Shelby said she immediately realized how much the granted wish would help.
“It’s nice to be able to go to the grocery store and not have to put the wheelchair together and then put her in,” she said. “We had to take the wheels off and the handles off to fit it in the trunk, and then put it back together. Everywhere we (went), we would have to put it all back together.”
Simplifying the Family’s travel gives Robert and Shelby more time to focus on helping Tiffany cope with her disease, Shelby said.
In her first weeks of life, Tiffany underwent seven surgeries to correct issues that myelomeningocele spina bifida, the most severe type of the disease, has done to her body. In spina bifida, the spine does not close in fetal development and can lead to a variety of other health issues affecting the spine and brain, according to the Spina Bifida Association Web site at http://www.spinabifidaassociation.org.
At just 5 years old, Tiffany has had 10 surgeries, including six on her brain, Robert said.
Robert has spent more than half of his nearly six years as a Soldier deployed or on temporary duty for training, often leaving Shelby to handle the surgeries and Tiffany’s 25 weekly medical appointments on her own.
“I don’t think about the negative, because then you don’t want to do anything. I think about how my husband is not allowed to be with me sometimes, because he is doing his job, and how hard it was for him. I had to do this for him, so he knew everything was taken care of,” she said. “The surgeries were the toughest – calling him over the phone and saying, ‘It’s not good.'”
While they appreciate the gift from Operation Once in a Lifetime, Robert and Shelby said they also are thankful for their “angel baby.”
“She requires a lot of care, but she is such a joy,” she said. “She smiles through everything. I would be crying and fighting, but she smiles through everything. If she can go through as much as she’s gone through and not complain and just be so happy, then my little problems … I can deal with.
“She’s our pride and joy. She’s our angel baby.”