A 7-year-old Fort Worth boy and his family will board a flight to New York later this week for free thanks to a decades-old program that's offered tens of thousands of similar life-saving trips.
Our sister station in Texas, WFAA, met Connor Wheatley at a garage sale in the driveway of his Fort Worth home.
"I am the boss and my brother is the manager,” he told WFAA.
The frequent garage sales are part of his family’s attempt to raise money for some of Connor’s frequent and expensive trips to a specialist in New York.
His condition is called Chiari Malformation. It’s a genetic disorder in which the skull is abnormally small or misshapen, allowing brain tissue to extend down into the spinal canal. For Connor it meant delays in walking and balance, limits to his sense of touch and taste, and the potential for serious developmental delays.
"They're not pressing against the brain stem, but they're pretty darn close,” his dad Don Wheatley explained.
So darn close that surgery has been necessary, where titanium was used to restructure portions of his skull. And surgery is needed again.
"He says he's not only got titanium but he's a super hero,” his dad laughed. "Are you a super hero buddy?”
“Yeah,” Connor answered. “But I don't save the day."
But what has helped save at least part of the day for this family is getting to and from that surgery for free. An organization called Miracle Flights has flown Connor and his family to a specialist in New York three times now. Later this week they take a fourth trip for another treatment.
The non-profit has arranged more than 100,000 free flights on different airlines for patients like Conner over the last 30 years. Miracle Flights averages about 700 flights a month.
"So knowing that we can fit in and help with one very expensive piece of the puzzle is highly rewarding,” said Miracle Flights CEO Mark Brown. "So for us to be able to provide this one part of the solution is what motivates us and gets us up every day."
And Connor's next trip will be on Southwest Airlines, an early partner with Miracle Flights, which offers a grant program of its own.
The Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program began in 2007. Since the program’s inception Southwest has donated more than $23.6 million in complimentary air travel benefiting more than 59,000 patients and caregivers.
"We get lots of requests, stories similar to Connor's, where people have special needs. And we want to be able to support them the best we can,” said Southwest spokesperson Laurie Barnett.
“Without Miracle Flights, reality, we couldn't do it,” Don Wheatley said. "My boy deserves the best, so this is why we're doing this,” he said of the trip to the top Chiari specialist in the country.
"Miracle Flights is everything,” Connor’s mom Kim Wheatley said. "And this allows people to get that best care for their children."
Connor, understandably, admits he doesn't much care for the surgery.
"Yeah, the surgery's not the fun part."
But he does like airplanes.
“Because the snacks,” he said. “Because they're so tasty."
To help pay for other medical expenses, the Wheatley family garage sales will continue. It's something the garage "boss" likes to do.
"Well this garage sale is the favorite thing I want to do today,” he told us. "Well this garage sale is the second thing. This interview is the first thing... that I want to do today."
An interview to tell everyone about the Miracle Flights helping save his life. And helping save a family before the kid with the price tags takes his “boss” title a bit too far.
"No, I'm selling the house,” he joked with a handful of garage sale price tags in his hand. "I'm selling the house, for pretty cheap.”
His parents aren’t worried about that. But they are thankful that Miracle Flights, Southwest Airlines, and medical experts across the country are giving their energetic son a fighting chance.
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