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Make-A-Wish 'kid' writes to spread hope for children fighting illness

| Sunday, March 19, 2017, 10:00 p.m.
Francesca Dabecco, 20, of Robinson stands in front of a wall at the Pittsburgh Make-A-Wish Foundation headquarters in the Gulf Building, Downtown, where the names of children who have been granted a wish are etched. Dabecco's wish was granted in 2014.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Francesca Dabecco, 20, of Robinson stands in front of a wall at the Pittsburgh Make-A-Wish Foundation headquarters in the Gulf Building, Downtown, where the names of children who have been granted a wish are etched. Dabecco's wish was granted in 2014.
Francesca Dabecco's first name is etched on a wall at the Pittsburgh Make-A-Wish Foundation headquarters in the Gulf Building, Downtown. Dabecco's wish was granted in 2014.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Francesca Dabecco's first name is etched on a wall at the Pittsburgh Make-A-Wish Foundation headquarters in the Gulf Building, Downtown. Dabecco's wish was granted in 2014.

She knows these kids because she used to be just like them.

But she made it through, even though it looked like she might not.

So, when she writes about them, she focuses not on the thing trying to kill them, but on “the person they are going to become.”

“It's hard seeing what they go through,” said Francesca Dabecco, 20, of Robinson. “Sometimes I get survivor's guilt: Why me and not them? You always ask why and there's never an answer.

“So I try to answer for them: What's next? Because, if you can provide any bit of hope, that's a miracle for someone going through what they are.”

Francesca's path to today took a sharp turn in the spring of 2013.

She had debilitating headaches that traveled from the back of her head to the front. She couldn't see straight or walk or eat. Her weight plummeted — 20 pounds in a month.

There were trips to emergency rooms and doctors' offices, each ending with an incorrect diagnosis. Then there was an MRI and, later that day, a phone call.

Her mom answered. It was a Tuesday — she does not remember the date, only that it was a Tuesday.

And that her mom cried before she hung up.

“They found something in your brain,” she told Francesca.

Doctors called it brain stem glioma. The tumor was at the base of her brain, wrapped around her spinal cord.

That night at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Francesca couldn't sleep. Her mom was in the room, and she couldn't sleep either.

“Mom?” Francesca asked. “Am I going to die?”

“Not if I have anything to do with it,” her mom said.

One doctor wanted to operate. Others said it was too risky given the location. They opted for radiation.

“It's what it takes out of you,” Francesca said of the treatments. “I was exhausted. I'd go home and just sleep. ... It was hard not being normal.”

It was hard, but she was not normal, not then. She was sick, and she felt it in the way people looked at her.

“Like they were imagining me dying before I was dead,” she recalled. “That was hard to be looked at like you're not what you used to be.”

Treatment began, and Francesca met the other sick kids. She was 17, older than almost every other patient at Children's. Francesca didn't lose her hair during radiation, and she got dressed up for each treatment — 30 sessions in six weeks — because “if you look good, you feel good,” she said.

“I was surrounded by all these kids who looked really sick, and to them, I wasn't sick,” she said. “To them I was just an older kid. And I felt this instinct that I needed to take care of them.”

Only, she didn't yet know how.

Then volunteers from Make-A-Wish, which provides wishes for children battling life-threatening ailments, visited her.

They asked questions and she told them of her two passions: fashion and writing. She hoped for a trip to New York and a brief visit to a trendy magazine.

She got much more.

Make-A-Wish flew her and her family to Los Angeles Fashion Week. She walked the red carpet. She had her hair and makeup professionally done, every day. She wore designer clothes shipped in from New York. She shadowed a reporter from Glamour magazine, who mentored her. She wrote a blog entry on trend spotting that remains on the website today.

“Hey, Glamour readers! We haven't met before, so allow me to introduce myself: I'm Francesca Dabecco, 17 years old, from Pittsburgh, Pa., and a total fashion fanatic. Last May, I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain stem tumor and life as I knew it changed forever.”

The trip was a respite from her world of fear and uncertainty. The tumor was still there. But being in L.A. gave her strength and hope.

“It's so hard to picture what your future will be like if you're not sure you have one,” she said. “After my wish, I was able to dream again.”

Four months after the trip, doctors had news:

The radiation worked. The tumor had virtually disappeared. Francesca was given a clean bill of health.

“I could finally be more than my diagnosis,” she said.

She finished high school. She enrolled at Point Park University. She is majoring in journalism.

And she applied for an internship with Make-A-Wish.

Today, she is the Wish Kid who writes profiles of other Wish Kids.

Kids like Fiona, 4, who wished for a visit to see the dinosaurs at Dorney Park in Allentown; Colton, 3, who despite his brain tumor wanted to be a lumberjack for a day; and Cameron, 12, who got to spend a day with Andrew McCutchen — he even had his own locker next to the Pirates star — as he batted cancer.

“I know the negatives, the diagnoses, the treatment,” Francesca said. “But with these stories, I get to focus on how their life has been impacted by their wish. ...I am writing for that kid, I'm writing for the family who had to endure what that child had to go through, I'm writing for every other Wish Kid. I'm speaking for that Wish Kid because I am a Wish Kid.”

The majority of Wish Kids survive, officials said.

But some don't. And word sometimes gets back to Francesca.

“I try not to think about it too much; I know why they're receiving a wish,” she said. “I want to focus on how that wish can change their life. Positive thinking is half the battle. I know that. People make it.”

Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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