A middle high school student in Lehigh Acres has something to be proud of and also something that has great meaning for her. Jessica Leigh Dallas, 13, has met Pope Benedict XVI and received a personal blessing from him. She is a seventh grade student at Varsity Lakes Middle School.
The trip a few weeks ago to Rome and the Vatican came about through the Make a Wish Foundation for children with serious and terminal illnesses.
She is the daughter of Ben and Sharyn Dallas of Lehigh Acres. Mom and dad accompanied her on her trip to see Pope Benedict, all paid for by the Make A Wish Foundation.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE VATICAN
Jessica Dallas, of Lehigh Acres, who is cancer free after a tumor was removed from her stomach, receives a special blessing from Pope Benedict XIV at the Vatican a few weeks ago.
"They were so wonderful in helping us," Sharyn said. "My daughter had cancer and we didn't know what might happen. We didn't want to lose her and she was always in our prayers." Jessica was 12.
Earlier this year, Jessica, began noticing that her stomach was growing bigger and then later, growing more rapidly. Her mother said she had to wear a larger size of clothes because of the weight gain.
"She almost looked like she was pregnant," her mother said. "Anyway, we rushed her to the hospital and they discovered a nine-pound tumor in her stomach. The mass was unbelievable and we were afraid the cancer may have gone through her system," her mother said.
"But thanks to God, she is cancer free, but she is being watched and we do follow-ups ever so often."
Her mother said that the diagnosis was a Stage 2 cancerous tumor. The doctors discovered the tumor through imaging equipment and it had to be removed and they hoped it had not attached itself to any other organ.
We were in Ben Evans restaurant and someone suggested that our daughter apply to the Make A Wish Foundation and ask for something that meant a lot to her.
"We are a very devout Catholic family and attend Mass at St. Raphael's Church on Lee Blvd. Our children, Jessica, and a brother, Michael, are active in Catholic youth activities. We take our religion very seriously and say the rosaries every day at home," Jessica's mom said.
Jessica was asked what she would love to wish for, what would be the most important thing in the world to ask for - her answer took no time.
"I'd love to meet Pope Benedict," she told her parents.
Now meeting someone like the Pope doesn't happen every day and probably nobody in Lehigh or perhaps the county has had the opportunity.
But Jessica was given the opportunity and she was third in line to knell, kiss the Pope's ring and the pope put his hands around her face and offered a special blessing for her from God. With her was her mother as only one parent could stand in line with a child to meet the Pope.
"Not only was my daughter in awe, but so was I. I kissed Pope Benedict's ring. In his blessing, he did not speak in English, but we could tell how serious it was by just watching him as he prayed," Sharyn Dallas said.
"It was after Mass and there was a short line of people who had been selected for various reasons to meet the pope," Sharyn said.
"It was so exciting. I will never forget it," said Jessica. "I couldn't wait to tell all my friends at the church," she said.
Jessica and her mom said they were given two rosaries from the Pope, but so far they are in a special place.
"We use our rosaries every day at our home, but these were blessed by the Pope and we want to keep them in pristine shape and have put them safely away," her mother said.
Jennifer's father is unable to work. His wife, Sharyn, lost her job and is on jobless benefits.
But the family is a happy one. Their eyes sparkle as they speak about the long trip to Rome and especially to get into the Vatican and to meet the Pope and receive his hands-on blessing.
Jessica's father, Ben, said the operation to remove the nine-pound tumor likely cost upwards of $120,000. But the family didn't have it because of the dire circumstances after Jessica's mother lost her job and any benefits. Medicaid took care of the bill.
Both parents said they couldn't express enough appreciation to the Make A Wish Foundation for what they did.
"We will never forget them," Sharyn's mother said.
They even have a color photo of the Pope making his blessing and the Vatican gave it to them as a keepsake of their visit.
Doctors were surprised to see such a large tumor and it took more than two hours to remove, using their hands ever so slowly and making sure it didn't touch other parts of the young girl's body. According to Jessica's mother, when she was pregnant, there apparently was another fetus that could have been a twin.
"But according to what they told us, Jessica became the dominant twin before the other was formed and some of the other twin's body grew in her stomach. There were body parts and hair. We never knew about this before," Sharyn said.
They applied online to the Make A Wish Foundation. They visited with the Bishop in Venice with the blessings of the local priest of St. Raphael's Church, Father Dennis Cooney. Jessica was asked to write an essay and she expressed her desire to meet the Pope writing that "it would be the most exciting thing in my life ... a life-altering experience."
The family left in late October and after a long 19-hour flight across the Atlantic rested the next day. On Sunday, they asked the hotel staff for the location of the nearest church, and the family went to Mass.
The family said they wanted to express their deepest thanks and appreciation to the surgeon who removed the cancerous tumor. He is Dr. Mon and to those who helped, Doctors Elmad Salmon and Dr. Craig MacArthur at Children's Hospital in Fort Myers on the campus of HealthPark. The surgery was earlier this year and the healing had to take place and then followed a few months for preparations for the visit to the Vatican.
"I'll never forget it, never, never," Jessica said and her parents agreed it would be an event they would cherish for the rest of their lives.