WILLOUGHBY, Ohio — A Willoughby teen with the heart of a warrior is sharing her story of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a diagnosis that didn’t destroy her dreams.
Andi Valaitis was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at three months old. Her illness didn’t hold her back as a child, but a lung infection she contracted her freshman year of high school sent her health into a downward spiral that lasted more than two years.
“It pretty much took hold, set up camp and decided to kind of mutilate my lungs in a way,” Valaitis said.
At times, her mother feared the worst.
“This kid was so sick she had to go in the hospital and wasn’t coming out for awhile with a PICC line,” Kristy Valaitis said, “To the point where my husband and I had to carry her up the stairs to bed because she couldn’t walk.”
That’s when the Make-A-Wish Foundation stepped in and extended a generous offer.
Andi admitted she feared their kindness might have been a bad sign for her recovery.
“It doesn’t mean that I’m sick with that bug anymore. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to pass soon. It doesn’t mean any of that,” Andi said. “It just meant that I got over one of the hardest things I possibly could’ve.”
She didn’t choose an amusement park or a celebrity meet-and-greet. Instead, she chose to honor her family’s legacy of service.
“My grandfather was a Marine,” Andi said. “My sister is now a second lieutenant in the Air Force.”
Andi is a dedicated student and member of the high school marching band with an unmatched sense of self-discipline.
“I think she also proved to herself that she is capable and capable of so much,” Andi’s mother said.
Even U.S. Navy recruiters thought Andi would be a perfect candidate, but her illness keeps her from serving on the front lines.
“There’s 40-foot walls. There’s rope walls,” Andi said, “There’s parallel bars, like how male gymnasts have to do the parallel bars.”
For just one day, she trained and conquered obstacles alongside U.S. Navy SEALs.
“I laid back and I finally just kind of let myself feel it,” Andi said, “And the way that it felt to me was that, no I’m never going to get to feel this again, but at least I get to feel it once.”
She defied indescribable odds by completing physically daunting military training.
“Even though this was the hardest possible thing probably that I could pick, I still went at it head-on and I said ‘We’re gonna do this no matter what,’” Valaitis said.
The Navy was so impressed with Andi’s courage, they congratulated her by making her the first female to be named an honorary Navy SEAL.
The Valaitis family said the Make-A-Wish foundation gifted Andi with a renewed sense of confidence.
Andi’s mother tearfully thanked donors for making her daughter’s dream a reality.
“To make sure that these kids, all these wish kids, can just be a kid for a day,” Kristy Valaitis said.