When Make-A-Wish Ireland gave Jason Dunne the chance to be a zoo keeper for the day, it did far more than taking his mind off his upcoming major spinal surgery. It also boosted his confidence, and sparked his ambitions for the future
Behind every wish granted by Make-A-Wish Ireland is a child and their family whose stories of courage and bravery in the face of adversity are legendary. Jason Dunne is no exception.
In the same week he was preparing for major spinal surgery, Jason’s wish to spend a day with the keepers at Dublin Zoo came true. His mum says this day was the greatest gift that keeps on giving. Michelle is sharing Jason’s story as part of Woodie’s Heroes campaign, raising funds for four Irish children’s charities that work tirelessly to improve the lives of children all over the country.
When Jason came into the world, doctors knew immediately something wasn’t right. Michelle, who lives in Moycullen, Co Galway, recalls being sent to Crumlin when Jason was just a couple of weeks old. That began their three-year journey to a diagnosis of congenital myopathy, which causes muscle weakness, not just in the big muscles of the body like the arms and legs but in other muscles including those of the heart and lungs. He also suffers from scoliosis, which causes curvature of the spine, and has already had to have multiple surgeries in his short lifetime.
The milestones in a child’s life that get taken for granted — things like walking, crawling and even feeding — were not part of Jason’s life. He’s been tube fed since birth and has never walked or crawled, but Michelle says he is a chatterbox whose enthusiasm for life is infectious. Learning can be a bit tiring because of his condition, and school means putting in a big effort but he loves playing with his friends in his power chair, according to his mum.
She explains that scoliosis is common in cases of congenital myopathy because the sufferer doesn’t have the ability to develop their core muscles. Despite the obstacles he’s faced, Michelle says Jason is a happy child who loves his friends.
Having had 21 surgeries since the age of two, Jason has countless medical appointments with physiotherapists, dieticians and occupational therapists as well as doctors and surgeons. The severity of his scoliosis meant Jason had to have rods in his back extended every five to nine months as he grew. Doctors knew spinal surgery would be necessary, but didn’t want to do it when he was too young.
Michelle heard of Make-A-Wish Ireland through Muscular Dystrophy Ireland because Jason’s condition came under their radar. However, she didn’t realise that Jason might be eligible for a wish because she mistakenly believed it was only for children who were terminally ill. When she found out it was also for children who had life-limiting conditions, she applied on Jason’s behalf in 2018.
The pandemic meant much of life had to be put on hold, and Jason’s wish was also put on ice — until Michelle got a phone call to find out all about her son’s passions in life, and to see how best to grant him a wish.
Michelle says her son has always been fascinated by the animal kingdom: the more dangerous the animal, the keener he is. Sharks, lions and tigers were specifically his favourite animals, and as the team from Make-A-Wish explored his interests it seemed something to do with the animal world would be top of Jason’s wish list. One of his favourite TV programmes was The Zoo, which went behind the scenes at Dublin Zoo.
Eventually, Jason pinned it down quite simply — he wanted to be a zoo keeper for a day. A keeper from Dublin Zoo began to liaise with the family, sending videos from around the zoo and including little quizzes to keep Jason on his toes.
The day in September last year when Jason’s wish came true was just two days before he underwent major spinal surgery. His mum says the timing was a great distraction from something that was looming large in his life, and in hers.
“He thought we were going up for the surgery and he was gobsmacked. All thoughts of hospital went out the window,” says Michelle, who managed to keep the day of the wish visit a surprise.
The day proceeded like a dream, starting with Jason donning the uniform and hat of a keeper, feeding the elephants, the sea lions and the penguins. He threw food for the orangutans and stayed by the glass as keepers left food for the lions and tigers right where he could see.
He also enjoyed chatting to the keepers, asking questions about all the animals in their care. “He was a zoo keeper and he had the hat to prove it. That was his job for the day. You never get to see that side of things — you see it on TV but it’s not the same,” says Michelle.
After the dream day, Jason got a year-long pass to visit the zoo whenever he wanted. It cemented the zoo as a very special place in his heart. Just two days later he underwent his surgery but Michelle says his wish being fulfilled became the focus of his attention. “He got to do something that was just for him. It’s not something you can just go and do. There’s no price you can put on what he got to do.”
The ripple effects of that special day are still being felt. “He wants to volunteer for the zoo. He’s talking about what he wants to do when he’s older — he can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it,” says Michelle.
Every time she and Jason are in Dublin for appointments now, they try to schedule a trip to the zoo. “The hospital appointments are almost forgotten about and the anxiety he used to have is gone. In its place is a child happy to be doing something he loves. For me it’s one less thing to worry about,” she says.
“He’s much more confident too. When he went to Dublin Zoo on his school tour recently, he was able to be the leader because he knew where everything was. That whole day of the wish was magical. We felt so important. People couldn’t do enough for us and they were so kind and so understanding. That up close and personal experience was life-changing,” says Michelle.
Over the last seven years, Woodie’s Heroes has raised €2.5 million for Irish children’s charities, raising over €536,000 last year alone. This year’s campaign runs until August 13 and will support ISPCC by Childline, Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland, and Make-A-Wish Ireland.
For more information see woodies.ie/woodies-heroes