LAND O'LAKES — As the helicopter rose off the ground, Brave Wetherington wore the kind of smile appropriate for a kid fulfilling a dream: wide and full of teeth.
Moments earlier, the 12-year-old boy had been deputized by Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and given his own gold badge. Then, it was off to ride in the helicopter.
Most people aren't lucky enough to achieve their goals at such a young age. But for Brave, who wants to be a law enforcement officer when he grows up, there was a sense of urgency. Next week, Brave will have open-heart surgery, and doctors will attempt to fix the defect he's had since he was born in China.
But the risks are great, and it's possible Brave won't make it to adulthood.
"It's going to mean the world to him," said Stephanie Wetherington, Brave's adoptive mother, of Monday's adventure with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. "It's going to give him joy and hope to fight harder in the surgery that he has coming up."
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Brave was born in China's Guangdong province with a heart condition known as d-transposition of the great arteries, meaning his aorta and pulmonary artery are switched. Instead of delivering oxygen-rich blood to his body, his aorta carries oxygen-poor blood to his body. And his pulmonary artery carries oxygen-rich blood to his lungs, where blood cells are supposed to get oxygen.
Shortly after he was born, Stephanie Wetherington said, Brave's biological family abandoned him outside a hospital. It was likely for financial reasons, Wetherington said. They knew he was sick and likely didn't have the means to take care of him. He spent 10 years in an orphanage.
When Stephanie, 37, and her husband, Jason Wetherington, 40, a math professor at Pasco-Hernando State College, first met Brave in China in March 2015, he was completely debilitated by his condition.
"He could barely walk and you could hear him breathing from across the room," she said.
While a healthy person might have blood-oxygen saturation levels in the 90s or at 100, Brave's levels were in the 50s.
"I had to carry him on my back at 10 years old," Stephanie Wetherington recalled. "His only dream was to be able to run and play with the other children."
The Wetheringtons brought Brave to the United States. At first, medical reasons prevented him from undergoing surgery to fix his heart problem. But he could have a procedure to improve the quality of his life.
It worked wonders. Brave sprung to life, fulfilling his dream of playing with the other kids. Then he started thinking about his future.
Taking after his uncle, who works for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, he set his sights on law enforcement.
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Brave owes his life to a brother he'll never meet.
In 2010, the Wetheringtons' third biological child, Isaac, was born with a severe heart defect. He survived three heart surgeries, but died in 2012 after his intestines twisted.
"When he passed away, we knew that there were other children out there with special needs like him but they had no one to fight for them," Stephanie Wetherington said.
They have since adopted six children from Ukraine and China, all with medical conditions. Three have Down syndrome, two have heart defects and one has cerebral palsy.
Some of Brave's siblings understand the risks associated with his upcoming surgery at Boston Children's Hospital. Some don't.
Stephanie Wetherington, a stay-at-home mom, doesn't know how likely the procedure is to be a success. But she said it's possible Brave won't make it. The consequences of doing nothing are arguably worse: Without the surgery, Brave will die slowly and painfully, attached to an oxygen machine.
"I want no regrets," she said. "I want to know that I did everything I could to fight for him."
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After the helicopter ride, Brave got a chance to play with a bloodhound puppy and see the inside of an armored vehicle. Later, he got to shoot targets in a simulator at the Pasco County jail.
He spent some time with the sheriff, too.
"Being here with him, you really see what life's about," Nocco said.
Was it the best day of Brave's life so far?
Yes, the boy said, still wearing that toothy smile.
"I've never met a child with so much love for life," his mother said. "He needs to be here. The world needs him."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.