What her physical challenge was, I will never know. She was a happy person. I could tell that from her smile even though her illness prevented her from speaking. In 2018 I met Olivia. Her constant fight for literal survival was tested with continuous trips to the hospital and routine surgeries. She was in her early twenties, yet her genuine happiness for life was that much like a child. Confined to her wheelchair, she carried on day to day with her medical appointments, college education and outings to entertain and further educate her. She lived her life as best she could. She had medical attention 24 hours a day. The thing that made Olivia the happiest was Star Wars.
I met her when I was up in Prince George for Northern Fancon in 2018. She was excited to meet Darth Vader and the other members of the 501st. It was a wish I was very happy to assure her would happen.
What Olivia did not know was that after meeting her I had determined she was going to get something special.
As a 501st member I have been on numerous “sensitive” troops. These are troops where the child or children we encounter have health issues, cognitive challenges, or sadly, are in terminal care. These are troops where it’s important to raise the spirits of the young souls who meet us. I have been told how special our troops can be to families, and in some cases, we are thanked for being able to provide a service that normally can only be experienced by those able to visit a Disney park. Many of the special troops we participate in are for families and children who will never get to experience the magic of a Disney park either because of health or financial constraints – many times it’s a combination of both. Sometimes I am asked why I bother dressing up like a life size action figure. Easy. Because it’s fun, it helps to raise money for fantastic causes, and because it’s magic.
You won’t understand unless you experience it. Imagine a child in pain being treated for a life-threatening condition or recovering from multiple surgeries in order to stay alive. These patients and their families are often emotionally and physically exhausted to the point where even the act of smiling is too strenuous. And then, enter the 501st, the Rebels, the Mercs, Droids, and other characters. The energy in the ward or the room changes immediately. Smiles immediately abound. The medical routine has been interrupted with unabashed joy and surprise. Photos are taken. Many photos. Sometimes a hug is suddenly sprung on one of the members. Vader has not experienced any hugs, but Chewbacca has been hugged many times. My Disney training kicks in at that moment. Never be the one to initiate the hug, but never be the one to break it. Why? Because you never know how much that person hugging you needs it. If you’ve ever been to a Disney park or on a Disney cruise, you will see this in the photo line. Sometimes a child will hang on to the character. Not in a rambunctious way, but in a way that calls for a protective or consoling embrace.
Never be the one to end the hug.
Also, in dealing with the SW universe, it’s important to keep it light. There is a lot of blasting and fighting in the galaxy far, far, away. When trooping, it’s all about the fun. Stay in character, but keep it fun.
So, what was Olivia going to get?
Troopers sometimes present challenge coins (approximately 1.5 – 1.75 inches in diameter) to the people we visit specifically in hospitals. While these are amazing gifts to present, they can be easily lost, or even present choking hazards. The rebels have the ability to award medals based on the medal of Yavin from A New Hope, yet the Imperials (until Mandalorian showed an imperial wearing a medal) had no such thing to present. In 2016 I created a medal to be only given to those who deserved it most – those who needed that extra dose of magic during their hospital stay, or their move to hospice care. I Called it the “Hero of the Galactic Empire” medal. I paid for it out of my own pocket. Some members of the 501st have purchased one or two to present at their own troops for special recipients. Often, I would send more than one, and never charged more than cost. In fact, early on I stopped asking for costs. Donating a medal to a worthy recipient was the least I could do.
Olivia was presented with one such medal. She became one of the Heroes of the Galactic Empire.
I received a call tonight. Olivia died today.
She has become one with the Force.
I am remembering her, her laugh and her smile tonight, as she is now free of the restraints her human body once had.
Olivia will be buried with the medal she almost never took off since she was presented with it over two years ago.
This is the Way.
Pictured above: Teresa Nuthall, Trevor Grant, Tie Pilots (not Vader), David Nowak (ROTJ Vader), And Olivia. (2018)
Olivia with me after receiving her medal.