- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

The baby-making woes of the National Zoo’s pandas seemed less significant as they played yesterday before a group of children who have battled a host of diseases and injuries.

Fifty-two children from across the country visited the panda exhibit as part of the Foresters Champions Across America, a Children’s Miracle Network program that honors youths for persevering despite severe medical challenges.

Grayson Gilbert, 15, of Baltimore, stood within a few feet of one of the deceptively dangerous pandas.

As Grayson peered beyond the partition separating visitors from the pandas, he couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.

“I wanted to pet them,” he said with a grin. “But they wouldn’t let us touch them.”

Male panda Tian Tian and female panda Mei Xiang appeared to have trouble conceiving naturally during her peak breeding period, so on March 11 Mei Xiang was sedated and artificially inseminated.

Grayson’s fearlessness began early in life when at 5 he became only the fifth child in recorded history to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Grayson’s father, Stephen, said yesterday his son’s struggle with cancer started unassumingly with him moving sluggishly. Then his mother found a lump in Grayson’s stomach, which sent the family rushing to the family pediatrician, who sent them to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

“One day, I’m playing Wiffle ball with him; the next, he’s in emergency surgery,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Grayson had to undergo immediate treatment for a grapefruit-sized tumor in his stomach. But he stayed positive during treatment at Johns Hopkins, boosting morale by handing out candy to each child on the oncology floor.

“These children were gray-eyed and depressed,” Mr. Gilbert said. “And Grayson himself was only given a 4 percent chance to survive. But he’s passing out bubble gum, giving these other children hope.”

The Children’s Miracle Network program is filled with similar stories of courage and triumph.

Katelin McMullin, 16, of the District, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 9 months old and has to undergo several treatments yearly at the Children’s National Medical Center in the District. However, she stays as active as others her age — acting in school plays and organizing summer camps for the neighborhood.

“I thought it was cool being so close to the pandas — that’s not an opportunity a lot of people get,” she said after leaving the panda exhibit with her mother, Melinda.

The children — who also got to meet first lady Laura Bush and celebrities LeVar Burton and LeAnn Rimes earlier last week — have been invited to the White House before they participate in the annual Children’s Miracle Network Celebration at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The celebration takes place tomorrow through Wednesday.

The Children’s Miracle Network is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping millions of children with diseases and injuries by raising money for 170 children’s hospitals across North America.

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