- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

July 27—Standing atop an outcropping of volcano rock with a pool of brilliant blue water below her, 17-year-old Autumn Paolini made a choice.

Ignoring her mother Cheryl, who, across the natural pool shouted warnings at her, the Neshannock Township teen decided she had to jump into Aruba’s famed Cura di Tortuga.

“I was standing there, watching her, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s gonna jump,’” Cheryl Paolini said, recalling one of the more dramatic moments of Autumn’s Make-A-Wish trip to the Caribbean Island in June. “As her mother and a nurse, I kept thinking about the shunt in her brain. I was scared.”

But, after flashing her mother a quick thumbs up, Autumn — who in the spring of 2014 was diagnosed with a pilocytic astrocytoma, a Stage 1 brain tumor about the size of an egg — took the leap and plunged into the salty waters.

“She was freaking out, but it wasn’t that high,” Autumn said, “and I had to jump. If people asked me if I jumped at the natural pool in Aruba, I had to tell them that I did it. Because life’s an adventure.”

WISH FOR ARUBA

Autumn’s adventure began early this year, after her mother’s cousin nominated her for a wish through Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It had been nearly a year since the Neshannock High School student was diagnosed with her benign brain tumor, and during that time, she had undergone a number of surgeries and intravenous chemotherapy treatments.

“This year has been really tough for her,” said Cheryl, who is a nurse at Jameson Hospital. “They told us that the chemo wouldn’t shrink the tumor, but it would keep it from growing, but it didn’t. The IV chemo made her really tired, too, and she couldn’t eat.”

In fact, the tumor not only continued to grow, but it secreted fluid, forcing doctors to place a shunt in her brain at the site of the tumor, which is located near Autumn’s optic nerve and her pituitary gland, Cheryl said. The fluids drained into her stomach, and when her stomach failed to absorb the proteins in the fluid, doctors were forced to drain her stomach.

As the Paolinis dealt with Autumn’s health issues, they decided to cancel a much-anticipated family cruise.

“Last year, when I was first diagnosed with the brain tumor, we were supposed to go on a family cruise, but Mom canceled it, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Autumn said.

Though the family later exchanged the plane tickets from the cruise trip, and took a short trip to Florida in February, Autumn still dreamed of seeing the clear blue waters and white sands of the Caribbean islands. When she received the Make-A-Wish nomination papers, the choice seemed obvious.

Autumn said she had to fill out several interest forms, including one that detailed her wish.

“I just wrote that my wish was to relax and have a good time,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy myself and not have to worry about anything. I wanted to see the soft sand and clear water. Also, I wanted to take pictures of the sunset on a beach, and Aruba had such nice sunsets.”

WISH GRANTED

Autumn’s trip was approved by Make-A-Wish, which grants wishes to children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 18 years old and who have a life-threatening medical condition.

Autumn, her parents and her brother, Jordan left for the six-day trip to Aruba on June 15. While they were there, they visited beaches and the natural pool, rode a water taxi, went to the spa, and took an ATV tour over the island’s bumpy roads.

But the highlight of the trip for Autumn was her visit with Werner J. Bertsch, a landscape photographer known for his pictures of the Caribbean island. He taught her how to use the new Canon camera she received from Make-A-Wish and gave her tips while she took pictures there.

“I loved seeing Aruba with him; it was amazing to see what he did,” Autumn said. “He took us to the chapel — Alta Vista — which means tall view, and you could see the whole entire island, the water, the town, the desert plants. It was just amazing.”

She said Bertsch also gave her several books that feature his photography, and taught her how to emphasize the dramatic colors of the island in her pictures.

ADVENTURES AHEAD

Although the trip to Aruba was full of adventure, Autumn still faced the realities of her illness during her days there.

Just days before she left, Autumn began taking a chemotherapy pill twice a day as a part of a two-year clinical trial being conducted at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. The drugs have side effects, Cheryl explained, that occasionally made Autumn uncomfortable during their stay.

Autumn will have an MRI on Aug. 3, which will help doctors determine whether the new drugs are helping her tumor.

“I’ve been so positive, even through the IV chemo, and it was a lot worse,” Autumn said.

“With the new clinical trial, everyone is excited that it’s gonna work, and it’s lifting me up too,” she continued. “I know it’s gonna work, and it’s nice to have everyone else thinking it now, too.”

Cheryl said she’s hopeful, too, that the new treatment will make a difference. She said her faith in God has sustained her hope for her daughter this far, and she got further confirmation of that hope while Autumn and her brother walked through a peace labyrinth at the Alta Vista chapel in Aruba.

“It was a peaceful place, and as I watched them walk through it, I felt close to God,” Cheryl said. “I started thinking about how she’s doing with this new clinical trial — and I thought maybe the tumor is starting to shrink. I’m trying to be positive with so many prayers and support people have for her.”

Those prayers and support have made all the difference, Cheryl said, and have brought about a dramatic change in her daughter.

“It’s good to see her making cake pops and running and doing other things now that I’ve not seen her do in the past year. We’re even starting to sort though colleges now.

“For the last year, I’ve gotten used to seeing her tired eyes and sadness,” she continued. “But on the trip especially, it was so nice to see her smile.”

Autumn said now that her Make-A-Wish trip is over, she hopes to seek out new adventures.

“After traveling to a new place, it makes you think that there’s so many great things in the world,” Autumn said. “I want to go to explore them all.”

(Email: [email protected])

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