Swimming With the Dolphins: Fulfilling an ailing child’s wish gives lasting benefits

By Carl Rabke

Think of all the birthday candles, the fallen eyelashes, shooting stars, coins pitched into a fountain — all of the wishes we wish for throughout life. One of nine-year-old Alexandra Whiffen’s wishes was heard by a group whose sole purpose is to ring those wishes to fulfillment.

Since 1980, the Make-a-Wish Foundation has been dedicated to sponsoring the unfolding of wishes in the lives of children with terminal illness. For children whose lives have been spent mostly in hospitals, in and out of surgeries, Make-a-Wish tries to provide a beacon of joy, a chance for a child to dream freely and have the world respond.

In 1992 when Alexandra entered this world, she weighed one pound. She was four and a half months premature.  Suffering from severe brain hemorrhaging, her doctors predicted that she would never eat, never develop the capacity to respond to another being.  Despite ominous odds, a force in Alexandra simply wanted to live.

By the time she was five, Alexandra had survived over 150 Surgeries.  She had spent most of her life at Primary Children’s Hospital. Many times, her doctors didn’t think she would survive the next procedure, and yet somehow with a quiet determination, Alexandra would pull through.  Rarely complaining about her pain or condition, Alexandra continued to inspire her doctors and family with her capacity to keep going.

During one of the times when it looked like Alexandra was not going to make it through the rest of the year, her mother Stephanie inquired into the Make-a-Wish fund, to offer Alexandra the chance to relax the stress of medical procedures, and have one of her dreams be fulfilled. As her doctors said, “If any child out there deserves a wish, it is Alexandra.”

Stephanie contacted Make-a-Wish and found out that Alexandra’s wish would be sponsored. At first, it wasn’t clear what Alexandra wanted most for her wish. The most popular destination kids request is a trip to Disney World, but that didn’t quite fit for Alexandra. Wishes have been granted to watch a space shuttle launch, to meet the Dallas Cowboys, to go to the largest mall in the country, but for Alexandra and Stephanie, the one that stood out was swimming with the dolphins.

Alexandra had always had a strong connection to the dolphins and the sea. Her first time visiting the Pacific Ocean, Alexandra spent the entire day swimming, showing more energy and enthusiasm than her mother had ever seen in her before. When she visited Sea World on the same trip, her first encounter with dolphins left a lasting impression. Stephanie notes, “Even through the petting zoo was filled with children, all of the dolphins gravitated toward Alexandra. She spent hours with this cluster of dolphins, rolling and splashing like they all wanted to connect with her. When we finally left, Alexandra was beaming for the rest of the night.”

Stephanie had heard accounts of people experiencing healing from swimming with dolphins, and began to explore some of the available literature. She came across the work of Joan Ocean and Ilona Selke, about their experience and research with dolphins. In her inquiry Stephanie was astonished at the vast network of people around the world dedicated to exploring the impact of dolphins on humans.

Both Selke and Ocean propose that dolphins exhibit a highly evolved level of consciousness from which humans receive immense benefit. They suggest that dolphins can sense imbalances in energy fields, and that they naturally gravitate towards those imbalances, inviting them into harmony.

Whether these accounts were empirically valid did not matter much to Stephanie; she has seen what Alexandra’s first contact with the dolphins had evoked, and was eager to fulfill her wish of swimming with them. Make-a-Wish would bring children to a center in Florida where they could swim with captive dolphins, but Alexandra wanted to swim with the dolphins in the wild. As Stephanie describes, “I saw the dolphins in captivity as a metaphor of the captivity that Alexandra had experienced with her medical condition. I wanted her wish to be free from any limitations – to let her join the dolphins in their natural environment.”

This request was outside Make-a-Wish’s usual policy. To swim with wild dolphins was unpredictable; there was the question of liability. And in the wild, there was no guarantee that dolphins would even be encountered.

Yet eventually Make-a-Wish agreed to fund a wild encounter for Alexandra. To make the wish even more exhilarating, they were able to charter a boat with Joan Ocean herself, whose experience and rapport with dolphins was unparalleled. So in March, Alexandra and her sister Gabrielle, and Stephanie and her sister Elizabeth, were flown to Hawaii for a seven-day wish.

The setting was dream material. Leaving the winter inversion of Salt Lake City, the family was embraced by the dazzling natural display of Hawaii, as they stayed in a lush beachfront resort. Rather than the hour a day that Alexandra would have been able to spend in the water at the center in Florida, she was able to spend two whole days on a boat with Joan Ocean, swimming with the dolphins in their natural habitat.

When Stephanie describes the experience, it’s impossible not to get goose bumps. Baby dolphins jumped out of the water and flapped as blissful Alexandra was guided through the water. All day countless dolphins surrounded them, singing their dolphin songs and playing. Alexandra was also blessed when a family of pilot whales came right up to the boat, a very unlikely occurrence.

Afterward, Alexandra kept repeating how happy she was to be in her “big bathtub.” Her dream fulfilled in ways that she didn’t imagine were possible, at the end of each night in Hawaii she would collapse in an exhausted, peaceful sleep. And the benefits of her wish rippled far beyond her time in the water. Returning to Salt Lake, the effects of her trip amazed her team of home care therapists.

For the first time in her life, Alexandra was able to walk up a set of stairs by herself. One of her legs bent in partial paralysis had straightened by 25 degrees. Virtually all of her capacities – her coordination, ability to articulate, her attention span – were significantly improved. For anyone who knew Alexandra before the trip and after, the impact is undeniable.

Seeing these results, one therapist was drawn to explore more deeply the effect that dolphins can have on healing, even recommending it as a possibility for some of her other clients. Whether the healing came from the capacities of the dolphins, or the benefits of elation and deep relaxation, or some combination, really doesn’t matter. What’s important is the catalytic effect of having a wish come true. With the way Alexandra, and her family, friends, therapist have been affected this wish truly keeps on giving

This article was originally published on June 1, 2002.