Three years after staying at Give Kids The World Village during his battle with craniosynostosis, Brody Heinrich and his parents returned to the storybook nonprofit resort – this time it was to pay it forward to other families facing critical illnesses. The Heinrichs joined alumni wish families, reality TV stars and donors in raising funds for the Village during the 2023 Gingerbread Run this past February, when participants ran, roll or stroll a 5K through the 89-acre resort to raise funds for wishes.
The Gingerbread Run marks a long road toward recovery for Brody and his mom, Tawnya. Brody’s health struggles began at just three days old with recurring infections, progressing to excruciating headaches. Years of late night ER visits and endless tests yielded only skepticism; two-year-olds, they were told, don’t get headaches. “My mother’s intuition knew something wasn’t right; I kept fighting for my son,” says Tawnya, an EMT. As she and husband Nick, a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, continued their relentless pursuit for answers, Tawnya was dealt a devastating blow; a chance exam led to a diagnosis of her own, renal cell carcinoma.
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In the midst of Tawnya’s cancer treatment, a CT scan of Brody’s brain at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego revealed a severe case of craniosynostosis requiring emergency surgery. Just after his third birthday, Brody underwent the first of three major surgeries to reconstruct his skull in a series of 17 surgeries to combat seizures, tumors and a secondary diagnosis of Ehlers Danlos syndrome, an aggressive connective tissue disorder. Through it all, Brody’s radiant smile, infectious laugh and caring disposition melted the hearts of everyone he encountered. “He is the most fearless, loving and thoughtful person I know,” says Tawnya. “He kept all of us going.”
In 2017, Tawnya’s cancer returned. Nine years old now, Brody grasped what he had been too young to understand during Tawnya’s first bout with cancer. “It’s my turn to take care of mom,” he told his dad, and that’s just what he did – doing all of the things in the hospital for Tawnya after her surgery that she had done for him so many times before. One year later, with Tawnya in remission, Nick deployed to Iraq for a fourth time… and Brody’s health took a turn for the worse. This time, Tawnya and Brody faced the medical gauntlet alone. Persistent seizures led to the discovery of intracranial pressure in the fatal range. As he awaited life-saving surgery, Brody learned that his wish to visit Give Kids The World Village had been granted. “Knowing he would be going to Give Kids The World gave him something to look forward to… a reason to push through,” says Tawnya. Two days later, on his 11th birthday, Brody underwent his most complex brain surgery yet – and the headaches stopped.
In early March 2020, Brody and his parents arrived at Give Kids The World Village, an 89-acre, whimsical nonprofit resort in Central Florida that provides critically ill children and their families with life-changing week-long wish vacations at no cost. Every family is treated to transportation; accommodations; donated theme park tickets; all meals and snacks; nightly entertainment; daily gifts; and non-stop fun on the Village’s wheelchair accessible rides and attractions. “This was an adventure of a lifetime for all of us,” says Nick. “Brody was overjoyed; he was able to be a kid with no worries in the world – something he fought so hard for. The Village is truly a magical place for these children who fight big battles.”
This past February, the Heinrichs celebrated both mother and son in remission by participating in the Gingerbread Run to make it possible for other wish families to experience joy, optimism and hope at the Village. The Gingerbread Run is being sponsored in part by Experience Kissimmee. For information about Give Kids The World, visit www.gktw.org.