Nine-year-old Checotah Martinez sits with his parents, G.T. and Kay Martinez, in their Butts County home as the three look forward to a special trip to Disney World with Bert’s Big Adventure later this month. Photo by Diane Glidewell
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Martinez chosen to join Bert's Big Adventure
Family looking forward to a trip in the sunshine
Jackson Elementary School fourth grader Checotah River Martinez has never been in an airplane before, but on Thursday, February 21 he is going to be a guest of honor on a chartered flight. Along with 11 other children ages 5 to 12 who are experiencing a chronic or terminal illness, Checotah is going to be part of Bert's Big Adventure as he and his parents explore the Magic Kingdom of Disney World.
Bert Weiss, who has been hosting "The Bert Show" on Atlanta radio station Q100.5 FM since 2001, and his wife Stacey established Bert's Big Adventure as a nonprofit organization in 2002 to create a memorable experience that probably would not be possible for these families otherwise.
Weiss was so touched by a trip he took to Disney World in 1996 with 10 children with chronic and /or terminal illnesses sponsored by Kidd's Kids of Dallas, Texas, that he felt a call to launch a similar organization of his own and did so in 2002. "The Bert Show" has been a wonderful vehicle to educate the public about the organization, to reach the families who can most benefit from the program, and to inspire the support of the Atlanta community. Bert's Big Adventure accepts nominations of children from throughout "The Bert Show" listening area.
For most of the children chosen, every day of life is a struggle. The trip to Disney World is a chance for the children, their parents and their siblings to escape hospitals, constant scheduling, and difficult daily challenges and enjoy time with one another and with other families facing some of the same obstacles. And most of all, Bert's Big Adventure is a chance to create memories to last a lifetime.
Checotah has lived in Butts County his whole life. He is part of a close family with a proud Native American heritage. He is named for Checotah, Oklahoma, which was the home of his great grandfather. "I chose 'River' for his middle name because it was raining hard when he was born and a river was running through the backyard. Also, I knew that his brother would not be able to say 'Checotah' but could say 'River,'" said Checotah's mother, Kay Martinez.
Checotah was a healthy nine-year-old who had been in fourth grade for three weeks last August when he complained on his leg hurting. Thinking he was having growing pains or some soreness from falling off the slide at school, his mother gave him some Tylenol and sent him to bed for the night. The next day Checotah had walked to a neighbor's house when the pain became so severe that he could not get home. Within three hours of getting him home, he was unable to move either leg.
Dr. Lezlie Biles diagnosed Checotah's condition as transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder of the spine caused by inflammation across the width of the spinal cord. It typically begins with a rather rapid development of symptoms over several hours, days, or weeks and results in lower back pain, weakness in legs and arms, sensory disturbance, and spasms leading to gradual paralysis.
Checotah was treated for two and a half weeks at the Medical Center in Macon and then spent another seven weeks in therapy at Children's Healthcare, formerly known as Scottish Rite Children's Hospital, in Atlanta. He is continuing outpatient therapy in Griffin.
"We were told that he might never recover, that he might remain partially paralyzed, or that he might recover almost totally," said G.T. Martinez, Checotah's father. "The doctors did not know what would happen. But now he is doing better than they expected."
"They gave us a long list of things that might have caused the infection, but Checotah had not been exposed to any of them. He had had a cold that might have weakened his immune system, but that was all," explained Checotah's mother. "Within three days of the first symptoms, three-fourths of his spine was swollen."
Checotah is now using a walker to get around and was able to return to school with his classmates on January 3. He is struggling a little to catch up on all of the schoolwork he missed, especially in math. But his face lights up when he talks about the video he is going to make of his trip to Disney World to show his classmates and of the friend who wants him to bring back a Donald Duck.
Checotah's own favorite Disney character is Mickey Mouse, and his favorite cartoon character of all is Scooby Doo. He is ready to try the rides at Disney World, but he has never been on a roller coaster. He liked the train and the bumper cars at the fair, though.
A nurse at Children's Healthcare heard about Bert's Big Adventure on the radio, and she and Checotah's sister completed the application for him. His parent's waited until they were notified in early January that he was definitely going before they told him about it.
The Martinez family met with the other families for an orientation at the Children's Museum in Atlanta. The parents learned details of the trip while the children played, and Checotah had a wonderful time.
"They [the "Adventure Staff"] will pick us up from our home on Wednesday," said Kay. "We will spend Wednesday night at the Renaissance Hotel in Atlanta. We will board the charter plane on Thursday and stay at a motel on the Riverfront while we see Disney World on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sunday is a free day to go shopping or go back to Disney World, and on Monday we fly back to Atlanta."
"It was nice to meet Mr. Bert at the orientation," said G.T. "He sat beside me and talked long enough for me to know that he is 102% dedicated to what he is doing for the children."
"They told us, 'Don't worry about anything,'" said Kay. "[The Adventure Staff] will provide jackets if it gets chilly; they are going to provide a wheel chair for Checotah and one for me, too, so we can get around to see everything at the Disney park."
As his parents recalled the events of his illness, Checotah had very little to say about his weeks in the hospital, but he was eager to talk about the trip to Zoo Atlanta that Children's Healthcare provided him and to show the cuddly stuffed tiger and the little glass with a panda on it that he had gotten at the zoo. The tiger is going with him to Disney World.
G.T. and Kay Martinez will be going on Bert's Big Adventure with their son. Checotah's 17-year-old brother, who had Down's syndrome, was going to be included in the adventure as well, but he died of complications from pneumonia on October 31. Even if "Bubba" will not have a seat on the plane or a ticket to the Magic Kingdom, he will certainly be there with his family.