When McKenna Croteau was born, her head was the size of a six-month-old baby because of fluid built up in her brain.
Doctors implanted a shunt behind her ear, a tube running from her brain and curling down to her stomach to drain the fluid.
“If she didn’t have the shunt, she would die,” said her mother, Tanya.
“Her head would just swell so much.”
McKenna was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain, and the most severe form of Spina Bifida – myelomeningocele.
The latter is a neural tube defect in which the bones of the spine do not completely form. The result in an incomplete spinal canal.
McKenna has no feeling below her waist and needs a wheelchair to get around.
At four years old, McKenna started having severe seizures. She had four, lasting 10 to 15 minutes each. They are now controlled with medication.
She also has a tumor in her brain on the pituitary gland. It is benign, but must be watched.
So far McKenna has been fortunate as her shunt has only had to be replaced once, when she was eight, as she outgrew it.
McKenna can live a long and normal life, but her family has to be diligent with her medical care.
Right now, all her medical care is taken care of by the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Spokane, Wash.
But McKenna turned 18 this year, and so is her last as a Shriners’ child.
She will also be graduating from high school, which is bringing her anxiety.
To brighten her spirits, McKenna has been granted a “dream of a lifetime” by the Sunshine Foundation of Canada. She will leave Monday for the Mayan Riviera in Mexico to swim with dolphins, along with her family.
The foundation was established in 1987 by a police officer in London, Ont. as a legacy to his son, who passed away from muscular dystrophy. Its mission is to make dreams come true for children living with severe physical disabilities or life-threatening illnesses across the country.
In 2014, McKenna was invited on the Sunshine DreamLift day trip to the Disneyland Park in California. For many children invited on the trip, it is their first plane ride and experience without their parents.
“She came alive. It changed her whole personality from that time on,” Tanya said of McKenna.
After the DreamLift trip, McKenna’s family went on a Disney cruise to Mexico.
“She hated the cruise, it did not go well,” said Tanya, explaining that it was too loud, there was too much music and just too overwhelming for McKenna, who was 15 at the time.
The only thing McKenna wanted to do was a day trip at one of the ports to swim with dolphins.
But the organizers took one look at her wheelchair and said she couldn’t go.
“It’s the only time I have ever seen her sad about having a disability,” said Tanya.
“She was devastated and we were devastated because we’ve always taught her that [she has] an ability, It’s just a different ability. She needs to own it and to accept it,” Tanya added
“We want her to be strong. Even with all her differences, we want her to embrace it.”
McKenna has wanted to swim with the dolphins since seeing the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale.
“I think they are cute,” she said.
• For more information about the Sunshine Foundation of Canada,