This is a story about a little girl named Chelsea Wheeler, who lives in rural Oxford, the kind of small town that used to have a post office barber shop in one room. It's also the kind of town where citizens contributed at Town Hall to a giving tree set up in the Wheeler family name.
I'm not sure how many eleven-year-old children fantasize about what they want to be. Chelsea Wheeler knows exactly what she wants to be—a chef who runs a diner. That her body has rebelled, that she has spent so many years unable to ingest or taste any real food, is no deterrent.
Chelsea receives liquid nutrients pumped into her heart through an intravenous line attached to a backpack. It's been many years since she tasted real food. Instead, Chelsea concentrates as much of her energy as possible on her purpose and her plan. She watches The Food Network constantly. And she waits.
She is among 262 patients in the United States who need a rare small bowel transplant. Someone must die for Chelsea and the others to qualify for this expensive operation. If it works out for her, Chelsea will remain in the Pittsburgh hospital for a year. Already she has had 30 different surgeries. She has been sick almost all her life, but maybe this child understand the difference between curing and healing, if healing is about adjusting to the circumstances in front of you.
I know about Chelsea because I was sitting around swapping stories, as reporters like to do, with Doug Clement of Connecticut Magazine. That's when he told me all about Chelsea Wheeler, and how much he admired her and her family. As a long-time food reporter, I couldn't pass up the chance to meet another food lover, one with a dream, and a plan.
In our interview, Chelsea was as delightful as anyone can be, and she's quite serious about her restaurant.
She spotted a vacant barn in Woodbury, Conn., and knew right away that's where Chelie's should be. (Chelie is Chelsea's nickname.)
Because out-of-pocket costs for the surgeries and transplant are so high, individuals and groups have been making contributions.
The family's champion, Doug Clement, is working on getting a national TV show to feature Chelsea, but we'll keep that a secret for now.
Here's to a dream, a purpose, and a plan. It's my wish that a grieving family one day realizes that a little girl in Oxford, Conn., will be a very good caretaker of the organ she received. THe stuff of life, such sadness and beauty walking hand-in-hand.
- Susan Casey is the author of The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean.
- “Gne Gne,” Montefiori Cocktail
- “Santiago,” Kristian Dunn
- “News from Verona Pt. 2,” Portico Quartet