When the people from Make-A-Wish come calling, most childhood cancer patients jump at the opportunity for a family trip to sunny Orlando, Fla., and a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but not Perryville’s Haley Fulmer.
When they asked her where’s the one place she wanted to see more than any other, she said she wanted to be on horseback riding the range at a working cattle ranch.
The Fulmers, including parents Paul and Jennifer, along with Haley’s 4-year old sister Cara, just returned from a week-long stay in Big Sky Country where Haley spent hours on horse back under the blue Montana skies working alongside the ranch hands at the Kombol family ranch, located 25 miles northwest of Roundup, Mont., as they coaxed hundreds of cows and their calves to summer pasture located in the foothills of Little Snowy Mountain.
Although it surprised Missouri’s Make-A-Wish organizers, Haley’s mom Jennifer said she was not the least bit shocked by her daughter’s choice in trip.
“Haley loves animals so much it was natural that her wish would involve animals somehow,” Jennifer said. “She takes riding lessons from Krystal Evans and loves being with horses. Anytime Haley is healthy enough, she’s outside playing, usually with the sheep, her goats, rabbits or even the chickens.
“Anyone who knows her, knows she can talk for hours about her animals. I think it’s her calling to be a vet someday. She doesn’t mind the smelly, gross parts that come along with animals. She can be right there observing and helping whatever she can. She’d love to have a horse, but it’s just not in the cards for us right now.”
This was the first time ranchers Terry and Cathy Kombol family has hosted a Make-A-Wish child, and the neighbors couldn’t wait to pitch in by offering up a horse-drawn wagon to give the saddle sore Missourians a break from the horses when they needed it.
“Haley had to be getting sore and tired after 10 miles on horseback,” Jennifer said. “But there was no way she was going to get off Reba, her horse, and ride in the wagon.”
In addition to the cow and calf operation, the Kombols also raise milk goats, sheep and lambs on their fourth generation ranch.
“We’re so glad she came to the ranch,” Cathy Kombol said.
Jennifer said it meant the world to her to see her daughter in such a good place, after spending the past year and a half in and out of hospitals as Haley battles a rare form of leukemia.
“Seeing Haley so happy and healthy was the best part,” Jennifer said. “If you could bottle up her happiness it would blow the top off. I think about the days upon days that we would be inpatient at the hospital and she was just miserable. You couldn’t get a smile out of her. Her fever would be raging, feeling nauseous and body hurting, just so uncomfortable and then to see her big, crazy grin out there, you could take a deep breath and feel some of the past stress lift off your shoulders. Our hosts, Terry and Cathy, were the nicest people. Everyone who rode with us are now our friends. We have the option to go back and spent time at a cabin in the mountains anytime we want with some of the people we met. It reminded me of living here in Perryville, if you needed it, you could call someone and they would be there for you. Small rural towns across the United States can’t be beat.”
Jennifer said these days, Haley’s health is much better than it was a year ago.
“Haley has 18 months under her belt since her diagnosis, and is in the last stage of her chemotherapy regimen,” Jennifer said. “She has approximately 11 months of chemo left to go. Every four weeks she goes to Cardinal Glennon for intravenous chemo and daily takes oral chemo pills at home.”
Jennifer said sometimes the chemo treatments are hard on her daughter.
“She was sick all day Monday while at the ranch,” Jennifer said. “She couldn’t do much more than lie on the couch and vomit.
“It was a combination of both the chemo and exhaustion, but by the next day, she was able to go on a ride around the ranch and climbed the hill back up to the other side of feeling good. We have to still watch her closely. Her immunity is low. She cannot be in any water source that is not treated, such as lakes or creeks. That makes her sad, because she wants to go tubing at Lake Perry very badly.
“With such low immunity, a simple sore throat for us could be deadly for Haley. Her body doesn’t have the capability to fight off things as well as we do. But we focus on the here and now, enjoying days like we just spent on the ranch. Just to be together and healthy.”
Haley wasn’t home for long. Wasting not a second of her summer, she left out for a stay at Camp Rainbow at Babler State Park, reserved for children suffering from cancer and other blood-related disorders.
“Last year she was able to attend only one day because she got a reaction to her chemo and had to go home,” Jennifer said. “This year she is feeling so much better and will really rock it. It’s a great camp that kids can see kids who are going through many of the same things.
“A large number of the counselors are themselves survivors of childhood cancer. If another kid is bald, has scars, missing a limb or is using assistive devices, it’s not a big thing. They just play on together and adapt to what they need to. Everyone can be comfortable together and just be kids together without feeling embarrassed if someone stares at them.”
And wasting no time, the family is also planning a weekend trip to Denver and a trip to Kentucky Speedway for a NASCAR race.
“We are just doing all we can, while we can,” Jennifer said.