Highschool student’s Make-a-Wish dream takes flight

Skyler Mandigo-Stoba hit the skies with Buffalo Airways following diagnosis

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From a floatplane mid-flight above Yellowknife, US highschool student Skyler Mandigo-Stoba never felt safer in the air than with Buffalo Airways pilot Joe McBryan.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October, she applied to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which aims to grant the wishes of sick youth and children. There were three options of people to meet: Nobel Prize winning chemist Frances Arnold, Michelle Obama, or Beyonce.

Considering those choices might be busy, Mandigo-Stoba settled on another choice: Buffalo Airways. She grew up watching the reality show Ice Pilots and fell in love with the airway’s appearances, studying the planes, calculating the equations behind their flights, and presenting the results in science projects.

“I don’t like flying that much,” she said. “But, I love planes.”

Shortly after she made her pick, the Make-A-Wish Foundation presented Mandigo-Stoba a video: it was Arnold who told her she was headed to Yellowknife to visit Buffalo Airways. After arriving at the Buffalo hangar in Yellowknife, Mandigo-Stoba hopped in her favourite aircraft, a twin propeller plane called a DC3, and toured the skies with Buffalo’s infamous pilot, “Buffalo” Joe McBryan.

For Mandigo-Stoba, it didn’t feel real to see the planes she had watched and loved for years. It was like a “really long dream,” she said.  “It’s just been so much better than I thought would have been. Plus, everyone was far nicer than they were portrayed in Ice Pilots.”

Arriving this past Saturday and leaving Wednesday afternoon, the trip was almost a year after her initial diagnosis.  Her father Ian Stoba feels her trip to Yellowknife was an important step in her recovery.

“She came to a frontier, another edge,” he said. “This is the farthest North that any of us had ever been. I think that was good for her, to find another edge to push.”

Skyler Mandigo-Stoba sits in the cockpit of the DC3 – her favourite plane – before departing for San Francisco on Wednesday. Nick Pearce / NNSL file photo

Skyler’s journey all began after an unexplained lump stuck to her neck for months, and was consequently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last October.

In an interview, Ian remembered doctors injecting Skyler with radioactive sugar to identify the problem areas on her body.

“Tumors are growing like crazy,” he recalled. “They’re much more active than any cell in your body.”

The original scan that October revealed black lumps all over her neck and chest. In February, half-way through her chemotherapy, there were fewer, but still present. The doctor showed the final scan on her office computer.

“We all started crying because there was nothing,” Ian said. “And the doctor was crying, we were crying.”

Skyler was already hoping for that result. During treatment, healthcare professionals told her she would be fine, while there may be more work. The results were a relief nonetheless.

Skyler was homeschooled for that period, where she “somehow got ahead.” When she returned to school, she was two years ahead in math.

“It was definitely harder because I had gone from just the expectation of living is enough to ‘now you have to go to school,’” she said.

For Ian, the transition back to normalcy had its own challenges.

“As a parent, when you find out your child is very seriously ill, it’s a shock. But there’s a lot of support and a lot of structure,” he said, explaining his job at the time had created a large logistical element to attending appointments, making school arrangements and keeping things on track.

“There’s less support for the transition out,” he said. “It can be a little unsettling.”

Going back to work after that period was positive he said, but not like flipping a switch. When Skyler was receiving her treatment, the family said it was like being in “emergency mode” with careful monitoring and quick responses to updates – even a bloody nose.

“You don’t have the opportunity to process what you’ve been through,” he said.

Skyler was thrown off, but she said she thought a lot about  “what (she) could really do now.”

She said it was clarifying, and that she focused more energy on the things she enjoyed, and less on the ones she didn’t care for.

“I figured out I do not like small talk, so I don’t small talk anymore,” she said.

It was natural to leave certain people or activities behind, as she headed into chapter of her life – which may include using her passion for science to make planes and airlines more energy efficient using renewable energy.

“No one’s fine after almost dying,” she said. “But I think was doing pretty well.”

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