Woodland boy becomes honorary rescue swimmer in Alaska

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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When 8-year-old Andrew Bishop was given the choice between family trips to Hawaii or Disney World, visiting Boston to watch a Bruins game or going to Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, the choice was easy.

“He pointed to the Coast Guard,” said Andrew’s mom, Stephanie Bishop.

Andrew, who is nonverbal and nonmobile, has for years had a fascination with rescue swimmers. The love dates back four years, when a 4-year-old Andrew watched “The Guardian,” a Coast Guard rescue swimmer movie starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher.

“He watched it repeatedly, like continuously,” Bishop said. “But he was 4. We thought he would get over it. But he didn’t — ever.”

So when Make-a-Wish’s Alaska and Washington chapter selected Andrew as a wish recipient, Stephanie Bishop and her husband, T.J., knew they needed to include a Coast Guard visit among the options for Andrew. They printed off pictures of each activity and let Andrew choose.

They weren’t surprised when Andrew passed up Mickey Mouse for Kodiak, Alaska. Stephanie, T.J., Andrew and younger brother Aiden left their Woodland home for Kodiak on Thursday and returned Monday night.

No one in the family will forget the trip, Stephanie Bishop said.

“It far exceeded any expectations we ever could have had,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “It was the most amazing trip ever.”

Honorary swimmer

Andrew has schizencephaly, a rare congenital brain malformation in which slits are formed in the brain. As a result of the condition, Andrew is nonverbal, uses a wheelchair and has seizures and impaired vision. He’s also highly intelligent, Bishop said.

For the last several years, Andrew has gone to Key Largo, Fla., for annual therapy. During a visit a couple of years ago, the family was connected with a rescue swimmer at Air Station Miami. Andrew got to spend a few hours at the base, and the family stayed in touch with the swimmer.

Since that trip, Andrew has insisted he’s a member of the Coast Guard, Bishop said. Now, he is. At the Alaska base, Andrew was designated an honorary rescue swimmer.

While in Alaska, Andrew underwent a modified physical fitness test and participated in rescue swimmer drills in the pool. He toured Air Station Kodiak and then continued his training on a helicopter. The next day, Andrew spent the morning as an on-duty Coast Guard rescue swimmer and took part in a search and rescue case, hoisting a hiker with simulated injuries to safety.

Andrew was having fun, Bishop said, but he was also taking his role seriously.

“Clearly, he was having the time of his life, but he wasn’t just having fun,” she said. “He was taking it seriously. … He was really serious about learning how (the helicopters) work. He got a lot out of it in so many ways.”

Before the family’s departure, Andrew was given rescue swimmer wings and an award for his heroic rescue. The Woodland family returned home with a box full of gifts from the men and women at the air station, Bishop said.

“We did not know how much recognition he was going to get, how many people were going to be so involved with this and connecting with us,” she said. “The men and women up there went above and beyond.”

Bishop said it’s impossible to put into words what the weekend meant to the family. But there was one word that described Andrew as he fulfilled his Kodiak, Alaska, wish.

“Joy,” Bishop said. “Pure joy.”