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Adams Twp. mom recalls son’s Jurassic Make-A-Wish in ’05

Meaty as he appears today in the Adams Township backyard of Zack Abel’s mom, Natalie Kurn. 2023
Zack Abel was 5 years old in 2005 when he received a 7-foot, fiberglass Tyrannosaurus rex he named “Meaty.” The dinosaur was the result of his Make-A-Wish request while in treatment for childhood cancer. Zack is now 23 and can visit Meaty in his mother’s Adams Township backyard.

As Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia turns 40 this month, officials there are hearkening back on some of the special wishes granted during those years, and one of the 500 granted to Butler County children springs to mind.

Natalie Kurn, of Adams Township, couldn’t forget her son having a Make-A-Wish granted in 2005 during his bout with cancer, especially since the roaring remnants of the event have become a permanent installation in her backyard.

Kurn said when her son, Zack Abel, was 5 years old in 2005, he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, which is the most common soft-tissue cancer to occur in children.

Kurn planned to take Zack to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for treatment, but discovered the same clinical trial for “rhabdo” was happening at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Zack's tiny body endured chemotherapy every week for 11 months, as well as six weeks of daily radiation treatments.

“Sometimes it was outpatient, but when he had issues, he would be in the hospital for weeks at a time, or sometimes a month,” Kurn recalled.

The grueling treatments caused the lad to begin bleeding from the bladder before the treatment plan ended.

“They had to stop the treatments because it was just too much on him,” Kurn said.

The family then went back for a scan to come up with an alternative game plan to rid Zack of his cancer.

“This doctor came in and he said ‘You are not going to believe me, but it’s gone,’” Kurn said. “That was on Holy Thursday. I’ll never forget it.”

Fast forward to 2023, and her 23-year-old son remains cancer-free since his treatments ended.

A bright spot

While most families would try to forget the trying treatments and the sickness and worry that accompanied them, Kurn said one shining bright spot occurred after he was diagnosed.

A caseworker from Make-A-Wish’s Pittsburgh chapter came to visit Zack in the hospital and asked him what wish he had.

The caseworker asked without his parents in the room so they would not sway his decision on a wish. They also gave him a book of wishes from other kids to give him ideas.

But Zack knew what he wanted.

“He wished for a dinosaur statue,” Kurn said. “He was a huge dinosaur fanatic. We were always at the museums in Pittsburgh back then.”

Never doing anything on a small scale, Zack’s Make-A-Wish team called the artist who made the lifelike dinosaur replicas that appear all over Pittsburgh.

The artist was so moved by Zack’s request that he drove to Canada to retrieve the Tyrannosaurus rex mold he had used in the past, and created the beast using a picture Zack had drawn as a template.

“They completely designed it the way he wanted it,” Kurn said. “The guy who made it and the people who painted it all volunteered their time.”

The result was a 7-foot fiberglass dinosaur on a concrete slab that now presides over Kurn’s backyard in Adams Township.

“He named him ‘Meaty,’” Kurn said. “He said it was because dinosaurs eat meat.”

But Make-A-Wish did not stop there.

Paleontologist for a day

The group made him a paleontologist for a day, and drove Zack and his family in a Hummer through Pittsburgh, following T. rex tracks Make-A-Wish volunteers had painted on the streets along the route.

The tracks showed that the T. rex they were trailing had jumped the fence at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and a huge fiberglass egg was found by Zack and his family in the zoo’s parking lot.

“Zack said ‘It’s a real T. rex egg!’” Kurn recalled.

The tracks then lead inside the zoo, straight to the exhibit of the T. rex’s nearest living relative, the Komodo dragon.

“Zack got to pet the Komodo dragon,” Kurn said.

The footprints then proceeded to the Oakland neighborhood, and ultimately to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

There, Zack was taken behind the scenes and shown all the dinosaur bones in the museum’s collection.

Pittsburgh news channels filmed the entire process, Kurn said.

A misconception

“I still cry because of how much it meant to everyone to give this little boy his wish,” she said. “Meaty is a constant reminder of it in my backyard.”

Kurn said, like many, she carried the major misconception about Make-A-Wish when Zack was diagnosed that wishes were granted to dying children, and originally refused the wish when the group’s caseworker came to the hospital to talk to her.

“I was absolutely, completely against it because I wouldn’t bring myself to that point, but it was one of the nurses who was a volunteer for Make-A-Wish who said it’s for kids with life-threatening illnesses, but a lot of them beat their illnesses and move on with life,” Kurn said.

Figuring the wish would be better for her son than laying in bed, she decided to go forward with it.

“He was a completely different kid,” Kurn said of Zack’s condition after learning about his wish. “He was planning his wish and this dinosaur and how he was going to design it. It took everyone’s mind off the day-to-day of what’s going on and the struggles we were going through.”

She said Make-A-Wish gave Zack strength she did not expect to see as he progressed through his treatment and planned the appearance of his dinosaur.

“I really, really can’t say enough about Make-A-Wish,” Kurn said. “They’re absolutely amazing.”

'The power of a wish’

Zack, now a Duquesne University graduate and account manager in Pittsburgh, said he remembers feeling extremely happy after receiving his wish, and knowing Meaty waited for him at home gave him something to look forward to during dark days in the hospital.

“Probably what I remember most is being in that big Hummer and realizing that we were going to the museum. I was so excited,” said Zack, who will be married next summer at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to commemorate his defeat of cancer. “I still remember following the dinosaur footprints around the city.”

Although it’s been almost two decades since his wish was granted, he will never forget the efforts made on his behalf by dozens of Make-A-Wish volunteers.

“It makes me so happy to see other kids get their wishes,” he said. “That’s why I help raise money as much as I can, so that they can give these kids a day like I got.”

Zack said he really believes in the power of a wish and its affect upon a sick child undergoing medical treatment.

“Looking back 18 years, my wish is what I remember,” he said. “I don’t remember being extremely sick; I remember the day when I was just able to be a kid.”

He said Make-A-Wish has become a second family to him over the years, and he hopes all families who are approached by the organization will allow their son or daughter the chance to escape the bonds of illness, even if just for a day.

“I think every child deserves the power of a wish,” Zack said.

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