Jackson Wagner had always been fascinated by the Navy. His grandfather was a commander with plenty of exciting stories to share. By his sophomore year, the San Dieguito student knew he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. A natural athlete and water polo standout, the now 18-year-old was on the right path. Then a life-threatening bout of cancer got in the way.
“The date was 10/11/12,” says Wagner of the moment he learned he had stage IV non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma. “That’s a hard number to forget!”
Wagner wasn’t sure he’d survive. Burkitt’s is known as the fastest growing tumor — in his case, a mass in his stomach was expanding at an alarming rate. He spent much of his 16th year in the hospital, enduring painful procedures and countless infections. His life expectancy was downgraded to less than 50 percent.
“Death never scared me,” says Wagner, who possesses a preternaturally stoic air. “I felt optimistic and wanted to fight it. I don’t know where I got that strength. But I know one thing that really inspired me — the Navy SEALs. I idolized them.”
When the San Diego chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation heard about Wagner, they quickly paid him a visit in the hospital. When they learned of his big dream in life, they reached out to eight local SEALs, including a master chief, who presented Wagner with a plaque and a handmade braided paddle — an honor bestowed by the Navy to other officers and enlisted men when they retire or pass away.
Shortly after the visit, Wagner underwent major abdominal surgery. Afterward, his prognosis still unclear, Make-A-Wish soon returned to his bedside to talk more about his wish. Before long Wagner started to mend.
“I didn’t really think I deserved a wish at that point,” he says. “But they insisted!”
“One misunderstanding about Make-A-Wish is that it’s only for terminally ill children,” explains San Diego chapter CEO Chris Sichel. “It’s for all kids with life-threatening diseases. Most of them beat what they’re fighting. And a wish is a big part of it. Hope is a powerful thing.”
The organization has done studies on the potency of wishes, whether it’s for a baby grand piano or an AP French teacher at school (both recent requests in San Diego). “We always had anecdotal evidence, but in surveys of parents and medical professionals, an overwhelming majority said the first time our volunteers walked in was a turning point,” says Sichel.
San Diego’s Make-A-Wish relies heavily on donations, and makes it easy to give through donated airline miles and in-kind services. The organization also hosts events like Roll Out the Barrel, a festival of food, wine, and craft beer at Humphreys on July 19. Make-A-Wish is also supported by the women’s fundraising group WISH Circle.
“Part of my job as CEO is to approve every wish,” says Sichel. “After nine years and probably 1,700 wishes, I’m still surprised all the time.”
As for Wagner, his dream came true — for now — with an unforgettable trip to Hawaii to hang out with Navy SEALs. He played paintball, watched them run drills, and held his own in a huge water polo match. One guy paid him the ultimate compliment when he assumed Wagner was a fellow SEAL.
“Make-A-Wish is a carrot to dangle under your nose,” says Wagner, who can apply for the Navy after a five-year remission and plans to attend college and study engineering in the meantime. He also speaks at Make-A-Wish events whenever he can.
“It helps you persevere. Make-A-Wish was there for me when it was the hardest, when I was in my most painful moments. They were my light at the end of the tunnel.” (858.707.9474, www.wishsandiego.org) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS