Hunts to make dreams come true

For about a decade I practiced as a counselor. My primary focus was working with athletes, but I also saw some others, including people with serious illnesses.

Some of those with life-threatening afflictions benefited considerably from talking about their problems, but others got well by doing less talking and retreating into nature, where they worked through things on their own.

This moved me to research the healing process and ultimately write a book about people who have found that nature is a healing force in their lives.

Two people who have studied the mental process of healing in great depth are oncologist Carl Simonton and psychologist Lawrence LeShan.

LeShan reports finding three general kinds of attitudes in those who, when confronted with a serious illness, don't give up. They are: people who fear death and/ or the pain associated with death; people who want to live for others (not themselves); and people who want to live because they want to "sing their own song" for the joy and meaning of being themselves.

LeShan writes in his book The Mechanic and the Gardener, "For reasons I do not fully understand, the body will not mobilize its resources for either or both of the first two reasons. Only for the third will the self-healing and self-recuperative abilities of the individual come strongly into play."

Someone who truly understands what LeShan is talking about is Brigid O'Donoghue of Wisconsin. When she was 10 months old, O'Donoghue contracted viral encephalitis. The high fever resulted in scar tissue on the left temporal lobe of her brain and paralysis on the entire left side of her body that affected her speech.

Until she was 15 years old she coped and got all As and Bs in school. Around that time the speech impairment worsened and along with her petit mal seizures she started having grand mal seizures that left her with temporary paralysis on her entire left arm.

When she was 20, doctors told her that she had to have surgery because they were not able to stop the seizures with medication. Unfortunately, after surgery she had no improvement in her speech. It only got worse.

She relates: "After my brain surgery I went right into construction work and learned the meaning of 'labor.' I worked for five years in this field and learned what working from sunup to sundown meant. It was a seasonal job and I loved to work so I started my own business at home and became a seamstress. I worked late evenings and weekends and became a fashion designer which earned me a blue ribbon in the nationals."

At the age of 25 she became a mother and chose to stay home and raise her children. But, the relationship turned sour and she found herself with two kids to raise.

Throughout her life, O'Donoghue had found healing when she would retreat into nature. While she grew up in an area with a lot of hunters, Wisconsin, she didn't get exposed to hunting until she was an adult and a friend took her out coon hunting. She was hooked, and ultimately went on to found Bio-Tec Research, Inc., which makes quality feed for deer and elk.

As a result of her familiarity with disabilities, O'Donoghue came to understand the healing attitude that LeShan had found. She knew that for anyone who is seriously ill, having a dream come true could be a powerful experience that could even extend one's life, possibly even result in a cure.

In the summer of 2000, Danny Schumann, who owned a deer preserve in Wisconsin, called O'Donoghue. He was looking for someone who was terminally ill to whom he could give a free deer hunt. She suggested they contact "Make a Wish." They were shocked when it came out that Make-A-Wish had decided it would not grant wishes to go hunting as it was considered "too dangerous."

O'Donoghue started looking for someone who was seriously ill who would like to go on a dream hunt. Five months later she came across a Web site in Texas that talked about Michael Griffey, the father of two children who was terminal ill with cancer whose life expectancy was six months.

His best friend, Mike Arena, had written that Griffey wanted to harvest a whitetail deer. One thing lead to another and Griffey and Arena flew to Wisconsin.

As a result of that hunt, O'Donoghue pulled together a team of volunteers and founded United Special Sportsmen's Alliance, a non-profit "dream wish" granting charity composed of a volunteer staff that specializes in sending critically ill and disabled youths on outdoor adventures.

United Special Sportsmen's Alliance works with an international network of donors, including land owners, preserve owners, ranches, outfitters, fishing-lodge operators, boat owners and campground owners, as well as corporate and individual sponsors.

Since September 2000, the United Special Sportsmen's Alliance has granted more 2,600 dream adventures.

For some program recipients, it was the high point of their lives. For a few, it was the experience that seemed to tip the scale and help them find new reserves to heal.

Griffey, whose hunt started it all, recently passed away. His son is 11 years old. United Special Sportsmen's Alliance set up an exotic hunt for this young man and his new hunting partner, his late dad's best friend, Mike Arena, in March.

United Special Sportsmen's Alliance is not the only organization that has sprung up to make dream outings in nature come true. Some others include: Catch a dream; Buckmaster's Life Hunts Program; Hunt-of-a-Lifetime; and A Hunt Above.

The work of O'Donoghue and these other folks is one more example of how modern hunting conserves the soul of mankind and promotes conservation of nature.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.