Star Eagle lands next to Jacinta
Not many people can slow high-flying footballer Nic Naitanui, but hearing Jacinta’s wish stopped the West Coast player in his tracks. Thanks to partner Hungry Jack’s, here’s how we brought Nic Nat and Jacinta together.
Alarm bells ring
As Jacinta proudly marched alongside ex-servicemen on Anzac Day, something wasn’t quite right.
The active 12-year-old found the 1km march as taxing as some of the Diggers. Her legs felt heavy, and her energy was low. She couldn’t wait to sit down.
“She’d done the march every year since she was 6 years old,” mum Kirsten said. “This time, she almost couldn’t make it.”
Alarm bells started ringing for Kirsten and soon after, Jacinta did a blood test at her local GP on her way to school.
A phone call later that night would change everything.
Blank expressions as news floors family
Kirsten said their GP rang at 10.30pm with the blood results.
“She said ‘you need to go to the Emergency Department now’,” Kirsten said.
“We picked up a referral letter on the way, which said ‘presents with leukaemia’.”
As her mum drove to hospital, Jacinta examined the letter.
“It was in bright red bold letters, ‘leukaemia suspected’ or something like that,” Jacinta said.
“I was very scared. I knew leukaemia meant cancer.”
After more tests, Jacinta was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
She remembers watching her mum and dad come into the room with “blank expressions on their faces”.
How to catch an Eagle
Coincidentally, just a week prior to her first hospital admission, Jacinta had the chance to meet one of her sporting idols, AFL player Nic Naitanui.
It was a post-game ‘meet the players’ function for the West Coast Eagles in Jacinta’s hometown of Sydney. Unbeknownst to her, Jacinta’s health was already beginning to fail, and she appeared pale as her picture was taken.
After the photo was posted on the Eagles’ social media sites, Jacinta’s parents wrote to tell them Jacinta now had leukaemia.
A month later, a letter from Nic arrived.
Nic told Jacinta that he was sorry to hear about her illness and encouraged her to “stay strong”. The ruckman also said he would like to meet Jacinta again.
Kirsten said the letter arrived at precisely the right time.
“It came when Jacinta’s treatment ramped up and become more intense, and changes had started like hair loss,” Kirsten said.
“It was the first time we had seen her smile that week.”
Jacinta’s mum and dad tried to organise another meeting with Nic, but the footballer’s schedule made it difficult.
Enter Make-A-Wish. As soon as Jacinta’s Wish team met the then 15-year old at home, it became clear we were going to need to find a way for her to meet Nic again.
Working on the wish
Make-A-Wish exists to bring amazing people together to grant inspirational, life-changing wishes for children with a critical illness.
So as soon as we learned about Jacinta’s wish, the team got to work.
One of the first calls was to partner Hungry Jack’s, who happen to also be a major sponsor of the West Coast Eagles.
However, there were plenty of scheduling challenges to overcome, with Jacinta in Sydney and the Eagles defending their 2018 premiership, while Nic Nat himself recovered from a knee reconstruction.
In the end, after several months of planning, the stars aligned in early 2020 when Make-A-Wish flew Jacinta and her family to Perth to meet Nic during a pre-season training session.
Seeing Nic a second time
Sixteen-year-old Jacinta watched the Eagles train close-up from the boundary line in early February 2020 – just a day before the World Health Organisation named the emerging novel coronavirus threat ‘COVID-19’, and a few weeks before its spread put the sport on hold.
Jacinta had no reason for concern. “I was so excited and so happy,” she said.
“I remember when Nic came in to meet us after training, I said ‘I feel really short’ and he said ‘Don’t worry, everyone else does too’. He was just really nice. He was so down-to-earth.”
201cm tall Nic spent a lot of time talking and getting photos with Jacinta before asking her to come down to the Eagles gift shop to pick some merchandise to take home.
Memories still strong
After two and a half years of chemotherapy, Jacinta is currently healthy and only needs to go for three-monthly health checks.
Her memories of hospital treatment have been replaced by memories of her day with Nic and the Eagles. She even has a pic of her and Nic as the profile picture on all her social media accounts.
“Every time I look at the photos from the day, they make me smile,” Jacinta said.
“I thought it would just be Nic, but being able to see other players and talk to them too was very cool."
Jacinta’s dad Rick, a self-professed ‘one-eyed Eagles fan’, said Jacinta “will talk about meeting Nic Naitanui for the rest of her life”.
“Meeting Nic no doubt changed her outlook on life, and seeing her face made the whole three-year journey feel like we’re at the end of it now. I can’t thank Make-A-Wish highly enough for what they did for my daughter,” he said.
Kirsten said Jacinta’s wish experience had shown her first-hand the power of a wish.
“The look on her face, and the realisation that it had finally happened (after all the mis-starts and trying to organise it ourselves) was just priceless.”
“Not just our child’s wish, the number of wishes that Make-A-Wish deliver every year is outstanding and amazing. Getting a wish during treatment is a carrot, something to live for and be excited about.”
We didn’t think her wish was a small one, and to make it happen, Make-A-Wish is really a priceless charityKirsten mum of Jacinta, 16, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
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The Wish Journey
How a wish comes to life
Make-A-Wish volunteers visit each child to capture their greatest wish, getting to the heart of what kids truly want and why. This profound insight is part of what makes Make-A-Wish unique, giving children full creative control and helping to shape their entire Wish Journey.
Back at Make-A-Wish HQ, we partner with families, volunteers and medical teams to design the ultimate wish experience - and start rallying our partners and supporters to help make it happen.
In the lead up to the wish, we take each child on a journey designed to build excitement and provide a welcome distraction from medical treatment. Anticipation can be incredibly powerful, helping to calm, distract and inspire sick kids at a time they need it most.
When the moment finally arrives, children get to experience their greatest wish come true - it's everything they've imagined and more. Pinch yourself, and don't forget to take a breath and enjoy every precious moment!
Wish impact studies show that a child's wish lives on, long after the moment. A wish gives more than just hope – with an incredible and lasting effect on the lives of sick kids, their families and wider communities.