By: Dale King Contributing Writer
When 17-year-old Mya Lambert begins her junior year of high school in Fargo, N.D., this month, she’ll be able to share a “what I did last summer” story” that no one in her class is likely to equal.
With help from the Make-A-Wish foundations in North Dakota and Southern Florida, the teen who, for nearly a year, has been battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system – was able to fulfill her aspiration to work with sea turtles.
In August, she spent almost a week at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, helping the staff treat sick turtles and assisting little hatchlings to find their way to the Atlantic Ocean, just across the street from the nature center.
“We give them medicine, we help feed them,” said Mya, smiling broadly as she held one of the shelled creatures while he flapped his paws like little wings. Tall, with curly blonde hair, the three-sport athlete who recently got the news from doctors that her cancer is in remission, worked with the Gumbo Limbo staff as they drew blood from a slippery creature in the turtle rehabilitation center.
“Needles don’t bug me,” she said. “I’m used to them.”
“Last night, we did a turtle release on the beach,” Mya said gleefully. “It was great to watch them all scamper toward the water.”
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is committed to coastal and marine education, preservation, conservation and research. Founded in 1984, it is a cooperative project of the city of Boca Raton, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, Florida Atlantic University and Friends of Gumbo Limbo.
Dressed in light blue scrubs, Mya seemed right at home mingling with staff and carrying turtles in tubs around the enclosed area at the middle of the shoreline complex. Officials noted that her name had to be added to the state permit issued to GLNC, enabling her to search for sea turtle nests, rescue and release hatchlings, feed and care for patients at the rehab facility.
Mya, her parents and brother, arrived in Boca Raton on a Monday and planned to stay through Sunday. During her time working at Gumbo Limbo, the delighted visitor from North Dakota was heard to say, “I never want to leave this place.”
The teen’s mom, Rhonda, stood just outside the turtle enclosure as her daughter worked inside. “She is a very happy, relaxed girl,” said mom. She looked wide-eyed toward Mya and remarked, “I have never seen her smile like she does when she is holding turtles.”
The family learned of Mya’s diagnosis when she visited her doctor last fall, complaining she was ill with a malady that would not go away. A chest x-ray located a large mass in her chest.
“She started undergoing chemotherapy at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo,” said mom, and she receiving four doses through Feb. 1. By the end of March, “Mya started feeling like herself again. But there were times when she could barely walk up the stairs. She’d go up two steps, then stop and rest, then go up another two steps and rest.”
While being treated, Mya had to take some “chemo days” off from school and also missed some on-the-court time during basketball season. Mya also plays softball and volleyball.
The high school junior said she developed her fondness for sea turtles last year while she and her family visited Mexico. “We were supposed to see a turtle release, but we missed it.” But the memory of the possible didn’t fade.
Making her first visit to Florida, Mya said she got a wonderful sendoff from her friends and family in North Dakota when they learned she would receive the trip to Gumbo Limbo from Make-A-Wish. “We went to Sandy’s Donuts in downtown Fargo. They had a party for me with a donut cake that had the image of an ocean and a turtle on top.”
The young girl’s time spent at Gumbo Limbo could help her decide on a career. She already said she’d like to work “in the medical field, but I’m not sure yet which area.”
The recollections of working with the aquatic creatures at Gumbo Limbo is bound to remain, she thought pensively.
Gumbo Limbo is a 20-acre facility that provides a protected barrier island refuge to many varieties of plants and animals – some rare or endangered. It also represents a commitment by staff and volunteers to help preserve animals and other natural resources.
Since 1983, Make-A-Wish Southern Florida has granted more than 11,000 wishes to bring hope and joy to children with life-endangering health conditions. The chapter grants a wish every 16 hours, at an average cost of $5,000 each, for children in 13 Florida counties and the U.S. Virgin Islands.