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Gackle girl’s wish comes true: Teen swims with dolphins as part of a Make-A-Wish expedition

Betty Hess, left, looks on as her granddaughter Jeannette Hess, right, is splashed by a playful dolphin during a Make-A-Wish trip to Hawaii. (Photo courtesy / Jeanette Hess)1 / 2
Jeannette Hess holds a dolphin during her recent family trip to Hawaii, part of a Make-A-Wish expedition. (Photo courtesy / Jeanette Hess)2 / 2

GACKLE, N.D. — A wish came true for Gackle teen Jeanette Hess recently when she swam with dolphins in Hawaii on a birthday expedition funded by Make-a-Wish North Dakota.

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“I’m a major animal lover, and I’ve always found dolphins interesting,” Hess said. “How they act — it reminds me of little kids.”

Hess, who turned 18 during her trip, is a senior attending Gackle-Streeter Public School. She lives with her grandparents, Betty and John Hess.

She has Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects development in various parts of the body, according to Mayo Clinic’s website. Noonan syndrome can have many different effects, such as short stature, pale eyes, heart defects, scoliosis, delayed puberty and hearing loss, among others.

This summer, Hess learned that she also has pulmonary hypertension, a kind of high blood pressure affecting the lungs. It’s a serious illness that can’t be cured, according to Mayo, but treatments are available that can help control symptoms.

“I might eventually need to have a lung transplant or a heart and lung transplant,” Hess said.

Doctors believe an open heart surgery she had 10 years ago could have caused the pulmonary hypertension, she explained, because normally it doesn’t hit until people reach their 30s.

“With the (pulmonary hypertension), I can’t do anything stressful. My heart pumps faster, and that’s not really good for my lungs,” Hess said.

She can’t run in gym class anymore, either, and she doesn’t participate in sports, either — past exertions have caused her to pass out, and an anxiety attack landed her in the hospital too, with stabbing chest pain.

The day after she found out about the pulmonary hypertension, the nurses at the hospital told her they had put her in for Make-A-Wish.

The Make-A-Wish program grants wishes for children who have life-threatening medical conditions.

The Hess family found out in October that Jeanette’s wish was going to be granted — and because her wish was to swim with dolphins, she could either head for Hawaii or Orlando.

She chose Hawaii, and went to Dolphin Quest at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island.

There, she and her grandmother, Betty, got to meet three dolphins personally — Iwa, Ipo and Hua.

“We kissed them, pet them, felt their skin,” Betty recalled.

The dolphins were mostly trained to respond to hand signals, so the two kept their hands to their sides to avoid confusion — but also learned a few signals.

Moving one’s fingers as if playing the piano led the dolphins to squeak, and tossing a handful of water up signaled them to splash, Hess said.

They even fed the dolphins.

“Iwa was the more gentle one. Hua was playful,” Hess said. “Ipo — he’s pretty much still a little kid. They stay by their mothers for years.”

The trip didn’t end there, though. Hess also got to go horseback riding, and visited Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and the Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. She and her family attended a luau and toured a macadamia nut factory.

They left Jan. 28 and returned Feb. 3, bringing back coffee, tea, sarongs, tans, flip-flops and even some collars for their family pets.

Make-A-Wish paid for everything, from meals and souvenirs to car rental and hotel stays.

Hess’ Adopt-A-Wish sponsor, Jewelers for Children, and its regional affiliate, Knowles Jewelry, even hosted a sendoff party for the family — and gave Hess a necklace with a dolphin pendant.

Hess said she wished she was still in Hawaii.

“That whole trip was worth it, just for that smile,” said Betty, indicating a picture of her granddaughter grinning at a dolphin.

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by email at