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Mike McFeely, Published March 15 2009

Children's Miracle Network Champion looks forward to Disney World trip

Matt Garberg is a shy young boy when a visitor to his family’s Oakport Township home asks questions that might spark a 9-year-old to talk. What’s your favorite video game? Do you like to play outside in the snow? What’s your favorite subject in school? Do you have a favorite book?

Matt quietly answered those queries with one or two words – or even a shrug – preferring to snuggle closer to his mother on the family-room couch while concentrating on his iPod.

One question, though, got Matt’s attention. And he answered it loud and clear.

Would he rather meet the president or go to Disney World?

“Disney World,” was the immediate response.

There’s a chance he might get to do both.

Matt was named the North Dakota Children’s Miracle Network Champion, a program that honors remarkable kids who’ve triumphed despite severe medical challenges. Matt, a third-grader at Robert Asp Elementary School in north Moorhead, receives care at MeritCare Children’s Hospital in Fargo.

Matt, mother Clare and father Bryan leave Wednesday for Walt Disney World in Florida, where they will be part of a celebration at the theme park. Then it’s on to Washington, D.C., to visit Capitol Hill and the White House. The children have been told that if President Barack Obama is available, he could meet with them.

The kids all have extraordinary stories, and Matt is no exception.

Born 16 weeks early in Bemidji, Minn., he weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces. He was airlifted to MeritCare for emergency intensive care. Within the first month Matt suffered necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe intestinal infection, and had surgery to remove his colon. He spent six months in neonatal intensive care.

“Babies that small face so many obstacles,” Clare Garberg said. “Kids born that early typically don’t live. Just the fact he survived was really something.”

This is where the story goes beyond interesting and becomes heartwarming. Clare is a pediatric nurse at MeritCare and was part of the team taking care of Matt. She fell in love with the little bundle.

Matt’s biological parents were not part of his life. So at 11 months, when it was determined Matt would be better off in a home with medical care, the Garbergs made him part of their family. They already had four kids of their own, plus foster children.

“It wasn’t even a question that he was going to come home,” Clare said. “I think it’s just part of the pediatric nurse’s mentality. You just fall in love with the kids.”

Matt weighed 10 pounds at the time, couldn’t sit up on his own, wasn’t absorbing nutrients and needed physical and speech therapy. He required a feeding tube. An assessment deemed him developmentally challenged.

“But he was just such a happy kid,” said Bryan, an engineer. “He was always crawling around on the floor with a big smile on his face. No matter what, he was smiling.”

Matt gained weight and developed rapidly. His biological parents terminated rights when he was 3, and the Garbergs adopted him. He was reassessed at 4 and lost the “developmentally challenged” label. Matt no longer needed a feeding tube at 5. By the time he was 8, he was the best reader in his third-grade class.

A voracious reader, Matt likes adventure books.

“ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Clone Wars’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” he replies, when asked to list his favorite books.

Matt’s a flourishing, active kid in every way. His weight is up to 56 pounds. He’s doing great in school. He plays on snow piles with neighborhood kids. He’s tried baseball, golf and soccer. He takes piano lessons. He snowmobiles with his dad.

“I have my own snowmobile,” Matt said, referring to the kid-sized machine sitting in the front yard.

There are still challenges. Because of short-bowel syndrome, Matt has painful bouts with intestinal infection and dehydration. Some require hospitalization. He must take antibiotics to help fend off the infections.

But his story – from a 1-pound premature baby fighting for survival to a thriving third-grader – is one of inspiration. And the proof that he is an everyday 9-year-old comes from his own words: He’d rather go to Disney World than meet the president.

A kid can’t get any more normal than that.

Forum columnist Mike McFeely can be heard from 1 to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com. McFeely’s blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/mcfeely