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Dream come true: Teen battling illness visits CVG flight deck

Cincinnati Enquirer / Briana Rice / December 17, 2020

Mollie Burke has spent over two years flying back and forth between her home in Chattanooga and Cincinnati for treatment at Cincinnati Children's Hospital for severe gastroparesis.

On Wednesday, the 17-year-old had a special gift to share with one of the pilots at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. And a rare chance to visit the flight deck of a commercial plan. 

Mollie Burke and Captain in Delta Jet Cockpit at CVG

Burke has been battling stomach issues while in and out of the hospital and traveling back and forth throughout high school. She's been pursuing her private pilot's license since August and hopes to receive it at the same time as her high school diploma. Right now she's flying small planes with an instructor, but as soon as she has her private license, Burke will fly on her own.

She has recently been accepted into the Aeronautical Sciences program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with the goal to become a commercial pilot.

"It's been my dream for about two years now. I used to want to go into the medical field but I realized after being in the hospital for like, most of my childhood basically, I didn't want to be in a hospital for the rest of my life," Burke said. "Flying back and forth from Cincinnati so much, I really just fell in love with aviation and decided that is what I wanted to be."

Burke was born at 31 weeks so she's had life-long gastroparesis issues. Over the years, she's had multiple surgeries and has flown to Cincinnati Children's 18 times.

"We exhausted every resource in Tennessee," said Andi Shadrick, Burke's mom. So the two began traveling to Cincinnati for treatment through a nonprofit called Miracle Flights, which paid for the flights to Cincinnati.

"She was throwing up and vomiting roughly 20 to 30 times a day," Shadrick said. Burke was unable to attend her sophomore year and half of junior year. 

Burke was the first person at Cincinnati Children's hospital to receive a new a gastric stimulator that has greatly improved her well-being, Shadrick said. The surgery was delayed until July because of COVID-19. "She basically has a pacemaker in her stomach and it's pretty effective right now."

Life is looking pretty good for Burke, Shadrick said. She'll graduate from high school in May at the top of her class at Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, was recently accepted into her dream college and lately she's been feeling a lot better.

Without Miracle Flights, Burke might not be doing so well. She couldn't make the five-hour drive to Cincinnati with how often she was vomiting. The company provides an average of 600 flights monthly to families who need assistance to reach life-changing medical care.

Miracle Flights and its partner Torgoen on Wednesday gifted Burke with a pilot watch to give to an unsuspecting pilot during one of her future flights.

"Without Miracle Flight flying her, she would have never fallen in love with flying, she would have never wanted to be a pilot and the watch company would have never given her the watch," Shadrick said. "It's kind of like a big wheel of everyone involved to make yesterday happen."

Burke joined Delta pilot Capt. Jim Leveille in the flight deck and gave him the watch on Wednesday.