After battle with lymphoma, Darien boy’s wish fulfilled to be National Geographic photographer

DARIEN — Ask 8-year-old Oban Birmigham to name an animal fact — any animal fact — and his eyes immediately light up.

Then, with all the speed of one of his favorite animals — the peregrine falcon — the Darien second-grader rattles off various critter anecdotes, gleaned from either the TV show Wild Kratts or the National Geographic documentaries he begged his parents to watch when he was 4.

Did you know that one rhino can defeat an entire pride of lions? Or that if a hippo and a crocodile square off, the hippo wins?

When he’s on a roll, it’s easy to forget that for all his vigor and passion for the world’s fauna, Birmingham spent the better part of first grade in a hospital bed at Yale New Haven as he battled a rare cancer diagnosis.

That diagnosis would ultimately lead him to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in February through the wetlands of Florida, seeing the wild animals he loves. But Birmingham had no way to predict that when, in, October 2020, he first began complaining of mouth pain and fatigue.

“I remember him saying ‘My bones hurt,’” his father Tom Birmingham said of the morning the family received the call from a doctor.

Birmingham had been diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a highly aggressive form of cancer that rapidly spreads and attacks numerous organ systems in the body.

He was quickly put in the intensive care unit, went on dialysis and within a week began chemotherapy.

Thus began a three-month-long hospital stay complicated by ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Since two parents could not stay with Birmingham, they would take turns, meeting only briefly in the parking garage, his mother Mirellise Vazquez said.

While Birmingham’s type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is treatable, it is extremely rough on the patient. Birmingham lost nearly half his body weight, went on a feeding tube for months and suffered numerous infections.

“I was like, ‘Am I gonna make it through this?’ Because at one point, I was so weak, and I couldn’t walk,” Birmingham said. “And I was scared, because I had a younger brother who I wanted to see.”

But after a few missteps along the way, Birmingham was ultimately released in late spring of 2021.

That’s when Make-a-Wish called. When they asked Birmingham what he wanted to experience, he pondered before asking for a trip out into the field with a National Geographic photographer.

The organization’s Connecticut chapter started scrambling to fulfill that wish — it was a rare enough request that Make-a-Wish had to hunt down the right person, Tom Birmingham said.

They managed to find Carlton Ward, a longtime National Geographic wildlife photographer and preservationist based in Florida.

When they got the call, “Oban froze — his mouth was open,” his father said.

In February, Birmingham and his father embarked on a week-long trip to Florida to meet Ward and fulfill Birmingham’s dream of getting out into the wild.

Once there, Birmingham visited the Audubon wildlife preserve, where he checked camera traps with Ward. He spotted multiple birds, explore the Everglades, and met a panther at the Naples Zoo, he said.

He also spent a day up close with alligators.

“I was frightened,” Birmingham said. “But the same time, I wanted to get closer to them.”

The trip may have cemented one of Birmingham’s possible future careers: naturalist. The other two options are hockey player and rockstar, he said.

Now back at Holmes Elementary School for second-grade, Birmingham is making up for lost time. He is enrolled in piano, lacrosse, hockey and baseball and is going to start water polo.

And he spends his school days with his friends — trading animal facts, of course.

“He’s a busy kid. He has a zest for life,” his mother said. “He’s gregarious, he’s kind — he has a sense of himself and and we love that that’s back. Because there was a period of time that we were a little bit afraid that got lost.”