It’s hard not to smile when talking to Mary Tipton, or MT, – a 10-year-old girl with a warm personality who loves to tell you fun facts she knows about dolphins. You would never guess she has fought ovarian dysgerminoma, a type of germ cell cancer most commonly found in children. Now in remission from her cancer, Mary Tipton had to opportunity last fall to walk in the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation’s Fashion Funds the Cure fashion show in Atlanta. She walked in the “Survivor’s Walk” as what she wants to be when she grows up – a dolphin trainer. Georgia Aquarium’s director of zoological operations and animal training, dolphins, Lisa Mignogna Bodechon, walked alongside Mary Tipton in the show in a matching Georgia Aquarium wet suit. After the show, MT was invited to visit the Aquarium and experience a behind-the-scenes dolphin encounter.
When did Mary Tipton discover a love for dolphins?
When MT was in Pre-K there was a dolphin toy in the classroom that made dolphin sounds. MT loved that toy so much that when her Pre-K teacher retired at the end of the school year, she gave MT the dolphin to keep. We still have it. We took Mary Tipton to Orlando for her 6th birthday and she was completely enchanted by the dolphins there.
Did her love for dolphins play any role when she was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy?
YES! We tried to keep Mary Tipton focused on positive thoughts while she was enduring chemo. Dolphins are her “happy place”, if you will, so we wanted to keep them on her mind. She had several plush dolphins that stayed in the hospital bed with her. Our sweet cousin, Dee, had support bracelets made for Mary Tipton’s friends and family. The bracelets had “Shake it off MT” and a dolphin printed on them, which represent two of Mary Tipton’s favorite things – Taylor Swift and dolphins. We also decorated the sign on her hospital room door with dolphin stickers. I have no idea how many times we watched “A Dolphin Tale” and “A Dolphin Tale 2” at the hospital, but we can probably recite those movies word for word. J The movies were a great distraction for MT and even on her sickest days, seeing Winter the dolphin would bring a smile to her face. The day of Mary Tipton’s last dose of chemo she had a “Dolphin Rescue Party” in her hospital room. One of MT’s favorite nurses, Jen, brought medical supplies to the room so she could “save” her giant plush dolphin. The Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta staff also gave Mary Tipton and her friends canvases and painting supplies to celebrate her last chemo and MT, of course, painted a dolphin. The dolphin painting now hangs in her bedroom.
What was it like for Mary Tipton to walk in the NPCF Fashion Funds the Cure show as her dream job, a dolphin trainer?
When I asked Mary Tipton this question, her response was, “It was SO cool! Ms. Lisa was so nice to me and I loved wearing the wetsuit! I was so happy!”
As Mary Tipton’s mom, what was her dolphin encounter at Georgia Aquarium like for you to experience?
It was so difficult to watch Mary Tipton suffer through treatment and not be able to take away her pain. And, once our child was diagnosed with cancer, I often found myself unable to think about her future without trepidation. “Where will she go to college?” became “What if she is not here to choose a college?” If someone asked, “What does MT want to be when she grows up?” A dolphin trainer, of course! But, it felt like we might jinx it if we looked too far ahead. Now that Mary Tipton is cancer free and doing so well, it is easier to contemplate her future as a real possibility. There is some lingering fear, and I suspect there always will be, but each time she has clear scans we become more hopeful.
Mary Tipton’s dolphin encounter at Georgia Aquarium brought pure joy to my heart. I honestly felt overwhelmed by it all – knowing what Mary Tipton has been through and seeing her life’s dream come true for her – the happiness on her face was priceless. The entire Georgia Aquarium team was so kind to her. They took the time to answer all of her questions and show her around the dolphin habitat. It was so much more than we imagined. I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched our little girl get to interact with the dolphins and splash around with them. It brought tears to my eyes to see her practice real dolphin commands and have them respond to her! After all the difficult days of diagnosis, surgeries, and chemo…look how far she has come and what a gift to see her so energized and happy! I thought, “This is what her future could look like. This is what she wants to do with her life and here she is, soaking in all the knowledge she can.”As we left Georgia Aquarium, Mary Tipton told us it had been the greatest day of her life. We cannot thank you enough.
What is next for Mary Tipton?
Spring Break! During our dolphin encounter visit we learned about the Georgia Aquarium’s Marineland Dolphin Adventure and Conservation Field Station (GACFS) in St. Augustine, Florida. All three of our daughters agreed (a miracle in itself!) that we should go check it out! On the medical front, Mary Tipton will continue to have oncology visits, including CT scans and tumor marker blood tests, for the next 3 years. As long as those stay clear then she will move to CHOA’s Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorder Center Survivor Clinic for the remainder of her childhood. She will need to be monitored for long term effects of chemotherapy treatment for the rest of her life.
For more information on how you can help fight childhood cancer, visit the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research and CURE Childhood Cancer. For more information on the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, visit nationalpcf.org. To join Mary T’s Dolphins team for the upcoming 23rd Annual Lauren’s Run benefitting CURE Childhood Cancer, click here.
We are so honored to be able to provide memorable experiences like Mary Tipton’s, and to be able to continue to inspire and share our passions with our guests.