Ben Bristor has a lot to celebrate. The 18-year-old former cancer patient from Amity is in remission and recently returned from his Make-A-Wish trip to Yosemite National Park.
Now, his family wants to give back to the nonprofit organization, so other families with sick loved ones may have the same opportunity. Bristor’s aunt and uncle, Tammie and Bob Giacometti of South Strabane Township, are hosting a fundraiser tonight at Valentour’s Family Restaurant and Pub in McDonald, with donations to Make-A-Wish.
“Make-A-Wish spent a lot of money on his Wish trip, and this was kind of a way to repay some of the kindness they showed us,” Bob said.
The fundraiser, from 5 to 8 p.m., will feature original music from eight local artists, appetizer sales, a chance auction and a 50/50 raffle to benefit the organization.
“We’ve had Wish families want to pay it forward,” said Dana Antkowiak, senior manager of marketing communications for Make-A-Wish. “We’re always so touched by that, and it’s exactly what they’re doing with this fundraiser.”
Antkowiak said they’ve granted 17 wishes so far this year in Washington County, including Bristor’s. She said she loves to see Wish families and children overcoming their medical conditions, like Bristor.
He was diagnosed at 15 with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His family thought he was dealing with bad allergies, as he was congested and having breathing problems, Tammie said. His doctor in Claysville had blood work and an X-ray done. When the results came in, the doctor immediately sent Bristor to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“He had a feeling and unfortunately he was correct,” Tammie said.
Hodgkin’s is cancer of the lymph nodes, which at stage four had started to spread to his liver and other vital organs.
“His chances were not very good,” Tammie said. “He’s a miracle walking. Thanks be to nurses, doctors and God. He’s a hell of a trooper.”
Bristor immediately started five intense rounds of chemotherapy, finishing the final round in December 2016.
“I realized that there wasn’t anything I could do except go through the process,” he said.
Even for the strong, athletic young man, that was easier said than done. Bristor said that before the chemo, he enjoyed running and general fitness activities and was “in really great shape.”
“There would be days, I would stand up and immediately face plant on the floor because my legs didn’t work,” he said about his time in chemo treatment. “One of the things that annoyed me the most was my hands would go numb. I couldn’t touch anything with my fingers because it was excruciating pain.”
He spent his 16th birthday in the hospital alone, because his white blood cell count was too dangerously low to be around other people. He had a fever that day, and doctors were afraid he would contract a blood infection. He was put in the intensive care unit on oxygen, constant monitors and round-the-clock nursing care.
It was scary, but “I dealt with it pretty well,” he said.
Tammie said her nephew spent a lot of time in the hospital, but he never quit fighting. While there, he even learned how to play the guitar.
“He never laid down and said ‘This is it,’” Tammie said.
In February 2017, Bristor was able to go back to school at Trinity High School. He had scans every three months, then every six months, checking to see if the cancer returned.
“After two years of clear scans, then you’re considered to be in remission,” he said.
A couple months ago he hit that mark, while Make-A-Wish was planning his trip.
“Since he was cancer-free, he wanted to donate the trip to another family,” Bristor’s uncle Bob said. “They said, ‘No we still want you to take this trip – it was meant for you.’”
Bob said it was Bristor’s first time on an airplane. Bristor, his aunt and his uncle stayed in a lodge near the park, went on bus and Jeep tours, enjoyed planned activities and had free time for exploring and hiking. It’s not a typical Make-A-Wish destination, like Disney World, Hawaii or a beach vacation.
“I came from a hunting family,” Bristor said. “I like walking through the woods and riding quads. I knew that this would be my one chance to do something that extravagant. I was just grateful that I could do it.”
He said around here, he can run for a long time without getting winded, but in Yosemite, at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, “just hiking up a small hill, I was totally out of breath.”
Bristor described his favorite part of the June trip.
“When you first get to the park, you enter this tunnel,” he said. “As soon as you get out, you see several different mountain peaks, the whole valley, different waterfalls. It’s like a postcard.”
Tammie said she enjoyed being able to see the park, but “watching it through his eyes” was the best part. That’s why they want to raise money for Make-A-Wish – to give other families that same experience.
Bob said he’s a musician who plays in a group called Robin and Bob. He along with several other musicians will be playing during the fundraiser, with all tips going to Make-A-Wish. He said all of the music performed for the benefit will be original music from the various artists.