Local News

Local women with disabilities swim with dolphins

— Three Sebring friends with cerebral palsy traveled May 11 to Discovery Cove in Orlando to make a special memory on Mother’s Day by fulfilling a longtime dream to swim with the dolphins.

Patty Wilfong, Sara Canali and Amy Nelson have been friends for more than 10 years and their love for animals runs deep, especially dolphins. They have often talked about swimming with the dolphins and finally committed to making it a reality when Wilfong was diagnosed terminally ill in March with congestive heart failure with six months to live. She is now under the care of Good Shepherd Hospice.

Before being placed in hospice care, Wilfong was unable to endure the pain involved with moving her body through the water with the dolphins. Every day was a struggle for her to breathe, let alone tackle a major jolt to her body such as riding a dolphin.

Now that the end of her life is drawing near, she has accepted her fate and hospice provides her comfort with morphine injections and oxygen. The pain that she has experienced in the past from her tightened muscles and many surgeries have subsided. Unfortunately, now some of her major organs, such as her kidneys, are gradually failing.

Two months ago she slipped into a coma for two-and-a-half days when a blood clot burst in her brain. She was bleeding through her nose and mouth. Everyone thought that was it, but Wilfong woke up in the middle of the night screaming out her mother’s name which frightened her father because her mother has been deceased for 12 years.

“I really don’t know why God didn’t take me then. I guess God knew that I was suppose to do this,” Wilfong said about her swim with the dolphins.

“I was really worried that I wasn’t going to be able to do it with Patty,” Canali said about their swim with the dolphins. “If I didn’t get to do it with her, it really wouldn’t be worth it. And now that I have, I will always cherish it forever.”

“It meant a lot to have my friends go with me,” Wilfong said.

Wilfong has had a deep love for dolphins. “I have wanted to swim with the dolphins ever since I was little and watching the movie ‘Flipper.’ All my life I have wanted to do this. I’ve always had a special connection with dolphins.”

She almost got to experience swimming with the dolphins four years ago when a caregiver took her on a cruise, but the small boat ride to the island where the dolphins were located was too rough for Wilfong’s small body to handle.

“I cried so hard when the cruise ship pulled away from the island. I just knew that I would never swim with the dolphins,” Wilfong said.

With hospice by her side, she once again felt reassured that her dream would come true. Good Shepherd Hospice pursued Wilfong’s dream through the Make A Wish Foundation, but were unsuccessful since a recipient is only allowed one wish in a lifetime. Wilfong was granted a wish in 1998 by the Starlight Children’s Foundation to transport her from Ohio to Florida to improve her health.

The news that Make A Wish was denying her request was devastating to Wilfong. It was as if she was watching that ship sail away again.

A very good friend of Wilfong’s was determined to make that wish come true no matter what it took. A call was made to Discovery Cove in Orlando and with the assistance of community relations coordinator Abby Pacholski, Wilfong’s dream began to unfold.

Discovery Cove rolled out the red carpet not only for Wilfong, but her two friends, three members of their families and a caregiver. They received the “Ultimate Package,” which included an all-day adventure at Discovery Cove plus tickets for the entire party to go to SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens. It was free to everyone.

“They were so accommodating,” Canali said. “It’s a good place to go for people with disabilities.”

The package also included free food and drinks all day, as well as a free photo, cabana, lockers, sunscreens, wet suits, wheelchairs for the sand and water toys. After eating a light brunch that morning, the group put on their wet suits and life jackets for the swim which was early that afternoon. They watched a short video about dolphins and headed to the water. As their wheelchairs were pushed to the water’s edge, Discovery Cove trainers and lifeguards came out to carefully lift each lady from their chair and into the water one by one. An assistant was assigned to each of them to hold them steady in the water. They were then introduced to Hutch, a dolphin. They got to pet him and feed him.

“They felt so rubbery,” Canali said. The trainer said some people think they feel like a hot dog.

As Hutch swam off, they then met his brother, Tyler, who they petted before they swam with him.

“It was great,” Wilfong said. “I never thought I’d swim with the dolphins. I thought I was just going to pet them.”

Before Wilfong could blink an eye, she was being whirled away with the dolphin. A trainer helped her to hold on to the fin.“I was totally shocked. She (the trainer) didn’t tell me that I was going and before I knew it I was swimming with the dolphin. I was wanting to do it again.”

Canali grabbed the dorsal fin and took off on her own. “It felt like I was flying along with the dolphin. It was very magical.”

Nelson said, “Words can not describe what it’s like to be one with the dolphin.” She also swam with the dolphin on her own. “I felt that my experience with the dolphins was one of the most incredible things in my life. It’s something that I will never forget. To be in the water free with them was truly incredible. They are beautiful and majestic in person.”

After the swim, they got to play with Tyler and kiss him for a photo opportunity. He swam very close to the ladies and eemed to bond with them.

“Dolphins can sense people with disabilities or when someone is not feeling right,” Canali said.

As Tyler rolled over on his side, he waved his fin goodbye. They waved back smiling from ear to ear.

Wilfong was exhausted after her swim but her friends got one more thrill as they headed to the stingray pool to wade into the water and feed them with the assistance of a trainer.

“For me the adventure was an emotional roller coaster. The excitement of getting the opportunity to do this and then an emotional high that you get when you finally see your dream coming true. The feeling you get as you’re riding along on the back of the dolphin is like you’re flying in the air as the dolphin lifts you out of the water. It was truly an incredible adventure one that I will treasure for the rest of my life because I got to share with my two best friends,” Nelson said.

These three friends share more similarities than just their disabilities and passion to swim with the dolphins. All three have lost their mothers due to cancer and since then, Mother’s Day has not been an occasion that they have enjoyed celebrating – at least not until this particular Mother’s Day, when they decided to change their outlook and make a happy memory together in honor of their mothers.

Although the three ladies are not related, they feel a close sisterly bond. They each cherish their friendship and learn from each other.

“It meant a lot to me to share this experience with my friends especially two people who truly know what it feels like to be in my situation. They face the same challenges that I do each day and they also know what it feels like to lose someone so close to you as a parent,” Nelson said. “When we were swimming with the dolphins it was as if we were all on an equal playing field for once in our lives. Sharing this experience with Patty was incredible. I was so glad that I was able to be there to share in the moment of her lifelong dream coming true. My friendship with Patty is special because she has taught me how to face life’s challenges with a bigger smile than before and always live for the moment, never take it for granted.”

Although they keep in touch through email and the telephone, the ladies parted ways not knowing if they would see each other again. Wilfong’s only request was for each of her friends to remember her and cherish the memory they made.

The dolphins bonded three young women forever.