ST. GEORGE — A young cancer survivor welcomed a new furry member into her family Monday afternoon courtesy of Make-A-Wish Utah.
Sophia Duran, a 17-year-old Dixie High School senior, shed tears of joy when she was surprised with an adorable mini Australian Shepherd at The Falls Event Center in St. George.
“She’s waited a long time. It is definitely a wish come true,” Sophia’s mother, Heather McGarvie, said.
The tiny, fluffy, multi-colored puppy, who Sophia named “Oliver,” immediately took to his new owner as she cradled him in her arms surrounded by friends and family.
Over a year and a half ago, Sophia was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer that occurs in and around the bones of a patient.
“I think it was a shock for her at first, but as time went on, she handled it really well,” McGarvie said. “I think she handled it better than I did.”
Sophia underwent 10 months of treatment, which included 14 rounds of chemotherapy, 28 days of radiation and several surgeries. The cancer affected her chest and required the removal of one of her ribs.
“She handled it like a champ. She had the attitude of ‘I’m not going to let this beat me. This is just a hiccup. I got this,’” McGarvie said. “She told me every day, ‘I got this, mom.’”
McGarvie said Sophia has completed her treatment and is back to living life as a “normal teenager,” adding that Sophia will be responsible for the daily care of the new puppy.
The wish-come-true for a new puppy was more than a year in the making and was coordinated by St. George-based volunteers Celeste Sorensen and Troy Rivera, whom Make-A-Wish refers to as “wish granters.”
“We really rely heavily on these guys to do the lion’s share of the work,” Make-A-Wish Utah representative Hilarie Timmerman said, explaining that over 200 volunteers throughout the state work directly with families to grant wishes.
Sorensen said she and Rivera coordinate with the foundation’s headquarters based in Salt Lake Valley, meeting with families and filling out paperwork on their behalf. They helped find the puppy, which just arrived in St. George Monday from an Idaho-based breeder.
“She found the perfect puppy,” McGarvie said, referring to Sorensen. “Exactly what Sophia wanted.”
Nationally, Make-A-Wish grants thousands of wishes per year to children age 2 ½ to 18 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.
“Our patients can be referred by a parent or guardian but referral most typically comes from a doctor or social worker at the hospital who is familiar with our policies and qualifications for a wish,” Timmerman said, noting that eligibility is ultimately determined by a doctor who can confirm that a diagnosis is life-threatening, be it malignant, degenerative or progressive.
Make-A-Wish Utah is a nonprofit funded by private donations.
“We really rely on the generosity of the community and donors to help grant wishes like Sophia’s,” Timmerman said.
She said the organization has been more frequently granting wishes in the Southern Utah area as the region’s population grows, adding that Make-A-Wish Utah could always use more volunteers and donations.
Several other entities contributed to Sophia’s wish. Dixie Veterinary donated supplies and a year of free care for the puppy, and The Falls Event Center donated the time at the venue for the event.
“We’re thrilled to be able to partner with nonprofits, especially Make-A-Wish,” said Stephanie Jernagin, event specialist and community organizer for The Falls Event Center.
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