One Superior woman’s dream came true Sunday. Swathed in layer upon layer of clothing, Sandra “Sandi” Vabalaitis watched the Chicago Bears triumph over the Minnesota Vikings live at Soldier Field.
“It was amazing,” said the die-hard Bears fan. She shared the trip with her friends Kelly Raunio and Barb Myhre. During the first half, snow swirled around them with blizzard-like ferocity and they lost seven minutes of the third quarter for a bathroom break. The Vikings notched an early lead and there were some nail-biting moments.
“It was perfect,” said Vabalaitis, 51. “This is how football should be played.”
Although Vabalaitis grew up watching the Bears and her favorite player, running back Walter Payton, on television, she never saw a live game until Sunday. The trip was made possible through the nonprofit Dream Foundation of California, which helps adults with terminal illnesses fulfill their dreams. The organization paid for airfare, tickets and a hotel room for the trio.
“It was fabulous,” said Raunio, a Vikings fan. The flight was wonderful, the game was amazing and Sandi’s team won. Raunio wore Vikings gear to the game.
“But deep down, I wanted the Bears to win for her,” she said. “It was all about her; it was her time, her trip.”
In September 2013, Vabalaitis was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The rare form of cancer, brought on by 13 years of hormone replacement therapy, dotted her ribs, liver and skull with tumors, but not her breasts. It was a devastating diagnosis.
“There is no cure,” Vabalaitis said. “It’s going to spread.” She is currently taking chemotherapy, one pill a day, to control her symptoms. The first chemotherapy treatment left her with horrible leg pain. She’s on the second available treatment now. If it stops working or the side-effects become unbearable, Vabalaitis has one last pill she can take.
The Superior woman wants to hear the truth about her disease, but she doesn’t take doctor’s numbers to heart. Instead of giving herself 12 months to live, she focuses on small goals.
“First it was Christmas, then my grandson’s birthday, than our 30th (wedding) anniversary, now it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Vabalaitis said. “I don’t like numbers unless it’s in football.”
The Superior woman has faced a difficult medical situation before. Her son, Bruno, was diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. He died in 2008, one week short of his 23rd birthday.
“I believe I got a lot of strength from my son,” Vabalaitis said. “I had to fight a lot for him. I fight for me now.”
She is holding close to her faith, as well.
“You keep pushing and I talk to God; I talk to God 100 times a day,” Vabalaitis said, and she believes in the circle of life. Her grandson, Liam, was born on her son’s birthday.
“He keeps me going,” she said of the 2-year-old.
It was Vabalaitis’ sister who told her about the Dream Foundation. She’d heard of the Make-A-Wish organization for children, but never a similar dream-maker for adults. It took about two months of shuffling paperwork back and forth to make the dream a reality.
“I just love everything about football,” Vabalaitis said. Seeing a Bears game live was her top wish; being on one of Ellen DeGeneres’ 12 Days of Christmas shows came in a close second.
The Superior woman flew down to Chicago last Friday, spent Saturday at the Museum of Science and Industry, ate at Bubba Gump’s, stayed on the 32nd floor of a hotel overlooking the field, then shouted herself hoarse at the game Sunday. The dream brought a new spark to Vabalaitis’ life.
“I haven’t seen her this excited since my son was born,” said her daughter, Arlene.
She described Vabalaitis as outgoing, honest and someone who would give you the shirt off her back.
“She is a breath of fresh air and she is an inspiration to everyone,” Raunio said. “I thank God every day that I met her and she’s part of my life.”
Although her dream has come true, Vabalaitis has some new goals in sight. She had a special sweatshirt made for the game. The front has the words “Cancer sucks but being here with the Chicago Bears, priceless.” On the back it has “Secretly hoping chemo gives me super powers.” The Superior woman hoped the Bears might sign the sweatshirt, something she would still love to see happen. Her other dream is more local. It is her wish that her oncologist at Essentia Health would hold office hours in Superior. Vabalaitis missed a number of appointments last winter due to icy conditions on the bridge.
She continues to focus on each day and each small goal post without dwelling on the numbers.
“Let’s just live life the way it’s supposed to be lived,” Vabalaitis said, by helping others.
For more information on the Dream Foundation, go to www.dreamfoundation.org.