North Carolina

When a wish comes true: Young UNC fan, facing fight of his life, spends time with Tar Heels on Maui

UNC coach Roy Williams (left) spends time with Will Fickling, right, and his family during the Tar Heels’ shoot-around at Lahainalula High School on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Will is receiving treatment for a brain tumor, and Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina granted his wish to attend the Maui Invitational with his family.
UNC coach Roy Williams (left) spends time with Will Fickling, right, and his family during the Tar Heels’ shoot-around at Lahainalula High School on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Will is receiving treatment for a brain tumor, and Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina granted his wish to attend the Maui Invitational with his family.

When he was first told that he might be granted a wish, any wish, Will Fickling didn’t think it was a good thing. He thought it meant that he might not have long to live.

“My face turned white,” said Fickling, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Goldsboro.

In time the power of that wish made him feel better than any medicine could. He thought about it coming true during long rides to Duke Children’s Hospital, and while he sat in a chair once a week for chemotherapy treatments that could last as long as three hours.

When he stayed awake on the nights after those treatments, unable to sleep because the drugs kept him up, he thought about it some more – his wish to travel to Hawaii with his family, to watch North Carolina, his favorite team, play in the Maui Invitational.

It was a dream that many Tar Heels fans shared: a trip to paradise to watch the Tar Heels play three games at the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center. For some, it’s as close as they’ll ever be to coach Roy Williams and the players.

“I’m more than excited,” Fickling said on a recent Wednesday while he was at the hospital.

That’s where he is just about every Wednesday. His parents, Marjorie and Tye, take him out of school at 10 a.m. and drive the two hours west.

Will has his check-up first, some tests, and then they wait for a pager to buzz, signaling that it’s time for his chemotherapy. Will has had 28 treatments since doctors discovered his brain tumor was growing again.

The family brought things to pass the time. Will and his mom like to play UNO while he’s receiving his treatment. Will usually wins, Marjorie said. They brought a basketball. Sometimes Will and Tye play HORSE on the court outside the hospital.

The family – which also includes Will’s younger brother, Clark, who is 9 – has learned, as Tye said, that “attitude is everything.” And so they try to make the best of these weekly trips to Duke, of the long-term uncertainty of Will’s condition.

Finding the tumor

When the mass appeared on an MRI scan in May 2015, a radiologist told Will’s parents they needed to drive straight to Duke Hospital. All they knew was that Will had a tumor, that it was the size of a golf ball and that it was in the middle of his brain.

They left the radiologist’s office in a hurry. Will had been experiencing what his mom described as “unusual symptoms,” but mostly he was a normal 11-year-old: a sports-obsessed Boy Scout, an avid reader.

Walking out of the doctor’s office that day, Will asked his parents if everything was OK. They “had a scared look,” Will said.

“They go, ‘Will, we’ve got to go straight to Duke. You have a brain growth on your head,’ ” Will said. “I didn’t know what to expect. We were learning about that in science that day, actually.”

The diagnosis came on a Wednesday: low-grade juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma. It required emergency surgery. Two days later, Will underwent an eight-hour operation at Duke.

The surgeon removed most of the tumor. Some of it couldn’t be removed, though, for fear of causing brain damage.

The surgery left Will unable to use the right side of his body and unable to walk. Though he could walk slowly by the time he left the hospital seven days after his surgery, a long process of physical therapy and rehabilitation began.

Four weeks later came another appointment, another moment that filled Marjorie and Tye with dread. That’s when Will’s face turned white.

It was June 2015. One of Will’s pediatric neuro-oncologists told Will that he was referring him to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Will and family thought Make-A-Wish existed to give dying children one final moment of magic: meeting their favorite celebrity or going to Disney World or attending the Super Bowl. They believed Make-A-Wish was only for terminally-ill children.

“I think our heart just kind of sank,” Marjorie said.

Reassurance came quickly: Though Make-A-Wish does serve the terminally ill, being terminally ill isn’t a prerequisite to be referred. Children who are facing any life-threatening illness or health crisis are eligible regardless of their prognosis.

Will’s prognosis is good – even “excellent,” Marjorie said – though he is eight months into a chemotherapy plan that could last a year and a half. After that there could be more chemo. It’s impossible to know.

“There’s a good chance that it will quit growing on its own,” Marjorie said of the tumor. “And so the objective right now is to keep it from growing through chemo. And we certainly hope that this will be the only year and a half that he has to have chemo.

“But if he has to have it again … we don’t even really think along those lines.”

They have tried, Will and his family, to focus on other thoughts. For a while that thought was this: If Will could have any wish come true, what would that wish be?

Making a wish

Will likes The Hardy Boys mysteries. He’s just started reading John Grisham. He’s passionate about the Boy Scouts, and already is planning his path to becoming an Eagle Scout. His greatest love, though, might be UNC basketball and football.

Maybe he inherited it. His parents met at UNC. Tye, a director with an insurance company, graduated in 1994; Marjorie, an accountant, a year later. Will’s earliest UNC memory is from when he was 5, staying up late to watch the Tar Heels’ victory against Villanova in the 2009 Final Four.

His knowledge of UNC basketball is encyclopedic. At a game at the Smith Center once he recognized Lennie Rosenbluth, the star player on a UNC team that won a national championship in 1957 – about 45 years before Will was born.

“Beat Kansas in triple-overtime and Wilt Chamberlain, right?” he said of that ’57 title game.

His parents knew Will’s wish would be UNC related. At first he wanted to attend a UNC-Duke game at the Smith Center. By February another idea had come to him.

By then his regular MRI scans showed something troubling. The part of his tumor that couldn’t be removed was growing. He’d have to start weekly chemotherapy. Those treatments began in March. Now he’s on his fifth cycle.

Between his surgery in 2015 and now, Will has gone to nearly 400 physical therapy appointments. He has recovered most of the movement on his right side that he lost after the surgery, but he has had to learn to write and do other tasks with his left hand.

He’s unable to play sports because the chemotherapy affects his stamina. Only recently did doctors identify the right combination of drugs to curtail his nausea. Will knows the names Decadron and Zofran, two anti-nausea drugs, like the names of his favorite UNC players.

He receives his chemo treatment in the Valvano Day Hospital: a devoted UNC fan going to Duke to receive medicine in a wing named after a former N.C. State basketball coach. And at first it felt like enemy territory to him, but the reminders of college basketball that fill the space made it easier. By March, he had a bet with one of his doctors, a Duke basketball fan and alum.

If he won the NCAA tournament bracket contest between them, she’d have to show up wearing UNC colors. If she won, Will would have to put on some Duke gear. And that’s how Dr. Kristin Schroeder, a pediatric oncologist, showed up one day wearing a UNC shirt and jacket.

However anyone who is being treated for a brain tumor is supposed to look, Will doesn’t look like it. He doesn’t look tired, though sometimes he is. He doesn’t look weak, though he still hasn’t regained all sensation on his right side.

He has kept his hair, though it did start to thin. That worried him.

“I’d say it’s even grown back, wouldn’t you?” Tye said, asking Will.

“For the most part,” Will said. “I mean, it’s not all the way.”

Around the same time that Will learned his tumor was growing again, Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina – one of many branches of the Make-A-Wish Foundation across the country – sent two wish-granters to Goldsboro.

It was time for Will to make a wish. He told them he wanted to go to Maui with his family. It’d be a chance to see UNC in three games, instead of one, all while taking a trip Will said he’s always wanted to take.

Wishes like Will’s can take a year and a half to put together, and Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina had a little more than half that time. The wish-granters expressed doubt.

“My understanding was that it was not going to happen,” Will said. “The wish-granters tried to talk me out of that being my wish. Because they didn’t think it’d be able to come true, because of the time.”

Will believed, anyway.

A wish granted

During his chemo sessions, he searched online for information about Maui. He planned the things he would do: zip-lining with his dad, a bike ride down Mount Haleakala, surf lessons.

And, yes, watching the Tar Heels. The best part of all.

In September, Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina invited him to speak as part of a fundraiser at UNC that helped the organization raise $40,000, money that will help several wishes come true. One month later, in late October, there was a knock on the door in Goldsboro.

Will’s parents knew what was coming but Will didn’t.

The two wish granters were outside and they had a big box. Will opened it and about a dozen Carolina blue and white balloons floated out. Some of the balloons were attached to the Maui Invitational tournament bracket. There was a note:

“Pack your bags, you’re leaving on Nov. 20 to go watch the Tar Heels play in the Maui Invitational.”

“A lot of people think that the power of the wish is the child taking this great trip, or meeting their favorite celebrity,” Marjorie said. “And that part of the experience is awesome. But it’s so much more than that.

“Because for all these nights when Will is up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, or sick, he had something positive to think about. So the anticipation that goes along with the wish really just carries so much value.”

And yet the actual wish was only part of it. Surprises awaited.

Traveling to Maui

The Ficklings arrived on Maui late Sunday night. On Monday morning they had an appointment to make: UNC’s shoot-around at a local high school.

This wasn’t an official part of the wish. It was a surprise: The Ficklings became guests of the Tar Heels.

The team bus pulled up a few minutes before 11:30. Roy Williams was the last one off. He walked straight to Will and struck up a conversation: “What school do you go to?’

“Wayne Country Day,” Will told him.

They talked for a while about Goldsboro, a 13-year-old boy and one of his idols. The shoot-around began and UNC’s assistant coaches all came up to Will and his family. Later, Williams sat down and spent some time.

At the end there was a picture with the team. Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, picked up Will’s younger brother and lifted him high for a dunk. Will tried to make a jump shot while the Tar Heels cheered him on.

He settled for a layup. Williams joked that his shooting percentage was still higher than some of his players. Hours later, the Ficklings showed up about 90 minutes before UNC’s game against Chaminade. Tye held the tickets proudly.

They sat a couple rows up, across from the UNC bench, and watched the Tar Heels win by 43 points. The next night they were all back in the Lahaina Civic Center. Will stood on the court in the moments before the game.

When the Tar Heels appeared for their final pregame warm-ups, Will was by their side. He held a basketball and, when the time came, delivered it – the game ball – to the officials. The public address announcer broadcast the moment, announced Will’s name. People cheered.

At halftime, Will met Eric Montross, the former UNC All-American who now is part of the school’s radio broadcast team. Will met Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst. Then Will took his seat at midcourt, close to the floor.

After halftime UNC quickly extended its lead against Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels put on a show, highlight after highlight, while Will sat in the middle of it all, living his wish.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter