To the Hastings community, Max Vertin has always been a hero.
Known as one of three siblings diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a genetic disorder that causes muscles to slowly deteriorate — the 8-year-old was elevated to an even higher status this week.
Thanks to Make A Wish Foundation staff members in Nebraska and Denver, he was granted his wish to fly while assuming the identity of his favorite comic book character. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he was Iron Max.
Transported to and from the airport in limousines, the Vertin family was treated like royalty as they spent the weekend living it up in Denver on a vacation experience unlike any they’d experienced before. Flying into Denver on Sunday, their visit included side trips to the Downtown Aquarium and Denver Zoo. But it was their visit to SkyVenture Colorado, an indoor skydiving facility, that elevated Max to superhero status.
Sustained by 175 mph winds in a 12-foot round chamber, Max experienced the sensation of flight. His family flew, too. All were treated to 1 1/2 -minute sessions with an instructor.
To Max, the experience was golden, his father, Jason, said. That his custom-made Iron Man suit won’t arrive for another few weeks took nothing away from the experience. The over-the-counter one sufficed.
“Max’s grins were from ear to ear,” he said. “It was about as happy as I’ve seen him for a long time.
“You think a minute-and-a-half flight is not very long, but when you’re in there, it’s hard work, it really is. The flight instructor helped us quite a bit.”
As super as the experience was for Max, it was equally memorable for the rest of the family, as well, Jason said. For those all too few days and moments, he and his wife, Betty, daughter Lexi, Max, and brothers Chance, Rowen and Charlie were a family without a care. And it was beautiful.
“My wife and I were talking on the way to the airport that it’s the first time our family has went on a vacation that didn’t include sports or hospital visits,” he said. “We didn’t have to work, we didn’t have to worry about doctor’s appointments, and we didn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning. It was like we had a clear mind and were just able to have fun and enjoy it.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that Make a Wish does, in my opinion. Obviously, it’s everything for Max, but it was so much more than that because it was for our whole family and everybody got to enjoy it. And everybody got to go on vacation and be a family and not have to worry about the other things we’ve got going on in our lives.”
On Wednesday, the family returned home from Denver to find yet another “surprise” waiting for them at Hastings Museum. A pre-arranged “crime scene” staged inside the museum theater made Max the hero once again. Cheered on by a host of invited guests that included Kool-Aid Man, Max strolled the length of the museum to rescue his good friend, Jenson Anderson, who had been tied up by an unknown villain.
The rescue, captured on film by a local news station, was sublimely surreal for all who participated. The opportunity to share the magic moment was simply too good for family friends Chelsie Hawkinson and her 7-year-old son, Talon, to miss.
Talon, who attended kindergarten and first grade with Max at St. Michael’s Catholic School, was delighted to be part of his friend’s adventure.
Waving a sign reading “Welcome Home Iron Max,” he stood proudly with dozens of children and parents also bearing signs and cheered the young superhero on in his quest to save the day.
“It’s awesome that he wants to be Iron Man!” Talon said. “He’s cool.”
His mother concurred.
“Their family is just amazing, and Max is such a wonderful young boy,” Chelsie said. “To show our support for them is the least we can do.
“I think the fact that everyone is here is just going to show him how much the community is there for his family and just how many friends and family do really care for him.”
Betty Vertin seemed to be enjoying the moment almost as much as her oldest son. It was her idea to invite as many of Max’s supporters as possible to share in his magical moment.
“They’re always there with us in the bad times and do all the fundraisers for us, so when Make A Wish told us they wanted to do this, I thought, ‘Let’s invite everybody so they can be there for the happy times, too,’ ” she said. “We live in a great community that always supports us.”