My Son Dreamed Big, and Make-A-Wish Made it Happen

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by Colleen Steele |

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Cullen meets President Bush. (Photo by David Bohrer) Permission given.

In 2008, my 8-year-old son was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension (PH). Being told that Cullen had an incurable, life-threatening illness was traumatic. It was impossible to imagine that there would be happy days following that news.

That year, two wish granters from the Make-A-Wish Foundation visited Cullen at home. Debbie Hanan and Michelle McLendon wanted to transform his rare disease into a remarkable experience of his choosing.

His dad and I left the room to avoid influencing his decision. We tried guessing his wish but didn’t come close to where his thoughts had gone.

Cullen asked to meet George W. Bush, the president of the United States!

More shocking than his wish were his granters’ reactions. According to Michelle, she had never had a request of this type, and she wanted nothing more than to make it happen.

I thought he might as well have asked the foundation to cure his PH, because meeting the president seemed so unlikely.

But seven days later, they returned with balloons, flags, books on our American presidents, and a video about President Bush. Cullen’s wish was going to be granted, and all of us — Mom, Dad, and brother — were going with him!

Jessie Elenbaas was Cullen’s wish coordinator at the Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington office. She had the formidable task of coordinating between the D.C. office and the White House. Debbie and Michelle planned the send-off party, maintained communication between our family and the foundation office, arranged transportation, and delivered the packets and details.

Their efforts far exceeded Cullen’s dream.

In late October, we took an early shuttle to the airport. Michelle assisted us through check-in and boarding. In Washington, D.C., a limo was waiting to take us to our hotel, where we stayed on the 12th floor with a view of the Washington Monument.

To avoid overexertion, the Make-A-Wish Foundation provided a wheelchair for the entirety of Cullen’s wish. First on the itinerary was a private tour of the National Museum of Natural History. Then we took the Old Town Trolley Tour from the museum to Union Station. It was amazing, but nothing would compare to the next day.


A wish come true: Colleen, Brian, and their sons, Cullen and Aidan, meet President Bush. (Photo by David Bohrer/The White House)


On Oct. 30, 2008, President George W. Bush walked into the White House Diplomatic Reception Room with outstretched arms, and in a booming voice asked, “Where’s Cullen?”

Cullen and his brother, Aidan, were nervous, but the president quickly had them laughing. They were thrilled to learn that they had something in common — a love for baseball. President Bush gifted them both with baseballs, which he signed.

I was deeply touched when he expressed, with great emotion, how much children like Cullen inspire him. It was an honor to meet him, but he made us feel like the honor was all his.

The president was headed for Virginia after our meeting, and we were allowed to watch him leave. From the White House lawn, President Bush turned and waved to Cullen before boarding his helicopter.

Cullen and Aidan share a joke with President Bush. (Photo by David Bohrer/The White House)


This was far from the end of the wish experience. Cullen and Aidan spent an exciting hour with the Secret Service, looking at weapons, petting K-9 dogs, and having pictures taken while sitting on one of their motorcycles.

We signed the White House guest book, and took a tour that included the bowling alley, movie theater, floral room, bakery, and a peek at the kitchen. The boys even played on the White House lawn with the president’s dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley.

Later, we were given a private nighttime tour of the Capitol building. On our last day, we toured the National Air and Space Museum and the National Aquarium.

When we arrived home, Debbie was there to greet us with Halloween treats.

Debbie shares how much Cullen’s wish touched her and others. “This experience helped many view our president on a human level during a time when many had chosen a less flattering perspective. Cullen personified the joy and exuberance of a young boy going on a huge adventure, and his enthusiasm was so infectious. Your family was truly exceptional also. You rallied around Cullen’s desire, and ensured he was able to express his wish on his terms.”

President Bush’s parting words to us were, “Life is filled with good days and bad days, but every day is joyous!” When times get tough, we are strengthened by those words and find joy in remembering Cullen’s Make-A-Wish experience.


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


MamaBear007 avatar


Your tale of this experience had tears of joy streaming down my face. Thank you for sharing.


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