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Girl with Down syndrome and terminal illness becomes flight attendant

CBS News logo CBS News 1/5/2019 Caitlin O'Kane
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A 17-year-old girl with Down syndrome and several health problems is living her dream of becoming a flight attendant, thanks to American Airlines.

Shantell "Shannie" Pooser was born with a heart defect and a series of terminal airway defects. She has struggled with her health conditions her whole life, but Shannie's mom, Deanna Miller-Berry, told CBS News her daughter was born to defy the odds.

For years, Shannie has been traveling back and forth from Denmark, South Carolina, to Cincinnati Children's Hospital for treatments and surgeries. In 2016, she received a major surgery that would save her life. Doctors told Miller-Berry when her daughter came out of surgery, she would be in bad shape.

"She came out singing 'Let It Go' from Frozen," Miller-Berry said. "The surgeons were standing around like, 'We've never had anybody come out of this type of surgery talking ... this girl is singing 'Let It Go' in ICU.'"

a group of people posing for the camera: miller-berry.jpg © Deanna Miller-Berry miller-berry.jpg

It was the moment Miller-Berry realized her daughter had a passion for life that could not be wasted. "I made a vow to God," Miller-Berry said. "I said, 'Shannie, no matter what you want to do when you get better, we'll make a bucket list and I'll make it happen. If you live long enough where the doctors can fix you 100 percent, I'll do my best to make your dreams come true.'"

Shannie made a bucket list with four or five things on it and the first dream was fulfilled on her 17th birthday in October. Shannie has flown to Cincinnati over 50 times since 2016.

a man and a little boy standing in front of a window: Shannie's birthday was made extra-special with a party on an American Airlines flight. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Shannie's birthday was made extra-special with a party on an American Airlines flight.

"We became friends with a lot of the flight attendants and a lot of pilots, and she just kept saying, 'Mommy, I want to be a flight attendant,'" Miller-Berry said. She knew this was an unrealistic dream for her daughter, but Miller-Berry did not want to let her down.

She sent a letter to a flight attendant friend at American Airlines asking if Shannie could have some airline memorabilia. She got a call from a pilot who said they would do something even greater than a birthday party. "He said, 'We're going to give her birthday party on a Boeing jet.'"

The birthday party was more than the mother and daughter could've dreamed of. The entire first class was filled with Shannie's friends and local celebrities showed up for the trip, like the mayor of Columbus, South Carolina.

Miller-Berry was shocked by the generosity of the airline, but the surprise for Shannie did not stop there. American Airlines found out Shannie what really wanted was to be a flight attendant. So, they sent her an official uniform and badge so she could look the part on the flight and every other flight after that.

Due to her condition, Shannie has an inability to fly on long flights on a frequent basis. However, since she is able to do the flight to Cincinnati often, the airline decided to make her part of the staff of the flight each time she flies.

Before each flight, Shannie helps flight attendants before she has to sit down and rest. Shannie usually helps the flight attendants demonstrate safety instructions. So far, she has worked in full uniform about four times since her birthday flight.

Shannie gets to fulfill her bucket list item every time she flies. The remaining items on the list: meet the Obamas, dance on Ellen DeGeneres' show and go to her junior prom in a hot air balloon.

"She has a Barack Obama doll," Miller-Berry said. "And she sleeps with it every night. She's the only person that can sleep with Barack Obama and get away with it," her mom joked.

The surgery Shannie had in 2016 came with risks, and she had growths that grew back aggressively, Miller-Berry said. However, Shannie is having an emergency surgery next week, and her family is confident she will keep her spirits up through it.

"I'm really in the business right now of fulfilling her bucket list," Miller-Berry said. At least one item from the list is in the works: Miller-Berry hopes to get Shannie the hot air balloon ride to prom. She also hopes that once her daughter turns 18, she will be officially employed by American Airlines and get a job in the terminal.

For Shannie, nothing is impossible. Her dreams keep getting fulfilled because of her optimism and fighting spirit.

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