On a large sectional couch in her home on South Washington Street, Bridget Mallo cradled four baby birds. A little cacophony of peeps filled the room as the goslings and ducklings grabbed onto her hair, her shirt, and her blanket with their beaks.
The 15-year-old looked down at them lovingly.
Mallo seems like a typical teenage girl. She loves Marilyn Monroe, animals, art, pretty much all types of music, and was hanging out with a few friends as she played with her baby birds and watched her brother play Fortnite, a video game.
But typical life for Mallo isn’t the same as typical life for her peers. At 6 months old, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a complex genetic disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to plug up a person’s lungs, digestive system, and other important passageways.
And after 15 years battling the disease in and out of hospitals across the country, doctors told Mallo she has four to six weeks to live — time she’s decided to spend here in Butte with her friends and family.
“She’s a very brave girl, the bravest I know,” said Elizbeth Gardiner, Mallo’s mom. “Bridget’s fought the good fight, but she’s had enough. She’s tired.”
According to Gardiner, she knew Mallo was sick when she was a baby, though doctors didn't diagnose her with cystic fibrosis until she was 6 months old. Gardiner said Mallo wouldn’t put on any weight, sparking her to call her only daughter “Bean,” a nickname she’s called by friends and family to this day.
This lack of growth and several other serious medical issues Mallo experienced as a baby — including lung failure and intestine blockage — led her to be flown via Life Flight from Butte to Missoula and then from Missoula to Portland, Oregon. There, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Gardiner said.
“It’s been a scary journey, but I never treated her like she had a disease,” Gardiner said of life since Mallo’s diagnosis. “I treated her special like a princess. … I told her princesses needed more treatment, but I never treated her differently.”
Gardiner said it wasn’t until Mallo was older that she understood the severity of her cystic fibrosis. In January, Mallo flew to a children’s hospital in Houston, Texas, for a double lung transplant evaluation. Gardiner said doctors talked with her and Mallo about the possibility of removing her left lung, which is the size of a 3-year-old’s, but did not feel Mallo could withstand the full double lung transplant due to her health.
Since she’s been back in Butte, she’s been rushed to the Billings Deaconess Medical Center twice. In Billings earlier this month, Gardiner said Mallo and her doctor had an intense discussion about the possibility of a successful single lung transplant surgery. Mallo asked how long the doctor thought she would survive without surgery, and he told her four to six weeks, Gardiner said.
“Bridget’s worst fear is to be put to sleep and not wake up again,” Gardiner said. "She wants the opportunity to spend time with her family and to say goodbye instead of leaving sudden and unexpected."
That’s why Mallo decided not to pursue surgery, instead wanting to spend the time she has left with her friends and family in Butte.
“It was really hard,” Mallo said, referring to making this kind of decision. “It was hard because I don’t want to leave them (friends and family).”
To help her spend quality time with her friends and family and to spread awareness for cystic fibrosis across the Butte community, Mallo and her family are hosting a Celebration of Life party on Saturday at the Silver Bow Athletic Club.
Over the past few weeks leading up to the party, more than 30 Butte businesses have showered Mallo with gifts and services.
“There are so many businesses doing a lot for Bridget. … A lot of people have come together as a community to help her,” said Megan Gardiner, Mallo’s aunt. “She just wants to have a party. She doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything, just have a big party.”
Gardiner said that over the past week she’s received dozens of Facebook messages from businesses and people across the state interested in supporting Mallo. She said her goal is to make Saturday one of the best days of Mallo’s life, like a prom and homecoming wrapped into one.
She said Mallo’s goal is to raise cystic fibrosis awareness and to leave her mom without any financial burden.
“She said she wants her mom to be financially free of her death. She just wants her mom to be okay,” Gardiner said.
Gardiner said her sister, Mallo’s mom, isn’t the type of person who asks for help — instead, she is the one helping everyone else. That’s why Gardiner reached out to the Bozeman-based Cody Dieruf Benefit Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis. Created by Ginny Dieruf in memory of her daughter, who died at 23 of cystic fibrosis, the foundation aims to support people across Montana struggling with the disease.
Since last fall, Dieruf and the foundation have supported Mallo and her family emotionally and financially, including helping to pay for Mallo's recent medical visit to Texas.
Dieruf said she's also helping to organize Saturday’s celebration, reach out to Butte locals for support, and raise money for Mallo’s mom at Mallo’s request.
“She is asking for financial freedom for her mom,” Dieruf said of Mallo. “We (the foundation) want to help make her life as comfortable as possible and offer as much help as we can for her family.”
Along with the Cody Dieruf Foundation and local Butte businesses, East Middle School is also stepping up to support Mallo. Faculty and students are donating a signed yearbook, putting up fliers for Mallo’s celebration around school, and have raised about $600 for Mallo and her family.
“Our focus here has been to support Bridget and her family as a school,” said Keith Miller, East Middle School principal.
Miller said the teacher who has been most supportive of Mallo is Cindy Ammondson, East Middle School counselor and Mallo’s homebound teacher. Over Mallo’s two years at East, she’s mostly learned from home, working with Ammondson about once a week on assignments sent to her from her teachers.
Ammondson said she greatly admires Mallo’s honesty and the joy she finds in animals and the simple things in life. She said Mallo has always been surrounded by love and friendship at home, evident in the significant number of people always at her house when Ammondson visits.
“She’s worked really hard and has never used her illness as an excuse,” Ammondson said.
Mallo also wanted to educate her peers on cystic fibrosis while at East, Ammondson said, which is why she and her mom came into Kathy Foley’s seventh-grade science classroom about a year ago to talk about the disease. And Mallo isn’t the only student at East with cystic fibrosis. There are three other teens at the middle school fighting it.
“None of them have ever used their illness as an excuse,” Foley said, who has had all four students with cystic fibrosis in her class.
According to Foley, Ammondson, and Miller, they feel Mallo has taught them more than they’ve ever taught her. They said many students and faculty plan to show up to her celebration on Saturday and that she has had a profound impact on the middle school.
“Here at East, we push character a lot, who we are when no one is watching,” Miller said. “Bridget is the epitome of (good) character.”
At the event on Saturday, a professional photographer will take photos of Mallo, live butterflies will be released to signify her freedom from cystic fibrosis, and many other fun surprises for Mallo are in store, according to her family.
But for her mom, the community support for Mallo is what sticks out to her most.
"It means the world to me that people are taking time for my daughter," Gardiner said. "She came up with the idea to have a celebration while she's still alive, to spend time with her family and to celebrate life."