Ethan Dean has loved garbage trucks nearly his whole life.
The 6-year-old – who suffers from cystic fibrosis – got his first toy garbage truck as a gift four years ago, and became obsessed with watching them from the stairway of his family home in Rancho Cordova, California.
“He would hear the garbage truck from two blocks away,” his mother, Erin Dean, tells PEOPLE. “He’d run upstairs to get to the middle of the stairs to watch for them. It just kind of took off from there.”
Ethan would gradually collect more garbage trucks and cans. He has a garbage truck bedspread and pillow. And he celebrated his 4th birthday with a garbage truck theme party. Eventually, the garbage men collecting the garbage on the Dean family’s street would honk their horn for Ethan, and he would run out to say hello.
“It just got bigger and bigger as he got bigger and bigger,” Erin adds.
So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Ethan’s wishes on Tuesday, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone when he was given the opportunity to be a garbage man for the day. But the news still threw Ethan for a loop!
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He was surprised with the wish at an outdoor morning assembly at his elementary school, before being whisked off in a garbage truck (with his name on it!) to five locations around town. “Ethan was so excited because he had no idea it was going to happen,” Erin says. “When we first saw him run down to see the garbage truck, my husband and I started crying. We’ve been keeping this a secret for so long and we knew how big it was going to be for him.”
Along the way, Ethan picked up garbage and recyclables – his favorite part being able to ask his driver, Sam, all his questions about being a garbage man. He was cheered on by his family, including his 3-year-old sister and grandparents, as well as hundreds of fans who came out to support him. Others rooted him on online, following his journey with the hashtag #EthanCleansUp.
His final stop? The Sacramento capitol building, where nearly 600 people gathered for a press conference from Mayor-Elect Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers – both who commended Ethan for his hard work cleaning up Sacramento.
“It went better than we could have expected,” Erin says. “It was so much bigger than we thought it was going to be. I just couldn’t believe how much it blew up on social media and how many people showed up. It was just overwhelming to see that people were so touched.”
“They were saying they didn’t remember a time when Ethan didn’t have that smile on his face,” she adds. “He was just in heaven.”
Ethan was just 18 days old when a state-required newborn screening diagnosed him with cystic fibrosis – a genetic disorder characterized by the buildup of thick mucus in the lungs and pancreas that often causes frequent lung infections and digestive problems.
His mother had no idea what it was at the time.
“I first heard it and thought, ‘This is doom and gloom – this is the worst thing that could ever happen to our family,’ ” Erin says. “I confused it with cerebral palsy. I kept asking ‘Is he going to walk?’ And they were like ‘No no no – this is what it means.’ ”
She learned quickly, as a cold put Ethan in the hospital a few weeks later – and another infection brought him back a month after that. “We kind of got a crash course in what cystic fibrosis was and how we were supposed to manage it,” she explains. “Luckily, we had a very good doctor and medical staff that took care of him and taught us along the way. But it was a lot to absorb in a short amount of time, because you have to be educated real quickly so you know how to move forward.”
Families in Erin’s community who have kids with CF also provided guidance and support. “For me, as a mom, the people around us have meant a lot,” she says. “Not many parents know of cystic fibrosis because it’s not a very common disease. It doesn’t affect as great amount of people as other diseases, so there’s not a lot of awareness.”
Approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. have CF, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Patient Registry reports, with more than 70,000 people living with it worldwide.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the current median life expectancy for CF patients in the United States is about 37 years. While the outlook may be grim, Erin and her 40-year-old husband, Ken Dean, focus on living their lives “day by day and in joy.”
“We don’t get wrapped up in the ‘what ifs’ ” she says. “Because cystic fibrosis can change rather quickly. He’s in good health now, but it can change. Enough instances in a row can pile on, and he’s got lung issues and liver issues – it affects every organ. So it can spiral.”
That’s why seeing Ethan live out his dream meant so much to her and her husband.
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“We tell our kids that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up,” Erin says through tears. “We want them to know this does not need to stop them from reaching their dreams. People with CF try to live as normal a life as possible, and they’re just like everybody else. And they have dreams and aspirations. So to see him being able to live that dream so young – to watch him do something that he loves to do everything and see him hope that when he’s older he can be a garbage man – it was emotional.”
Erin adds: “He tells me, ‘I can be anything when I grow up.’ And I tell him ‘Of course you can. Whatever you want to be, you can make happen.’ ”
As for Ethan, it was back to school on Wednesday – just don’t expect him to calm down anytime soon. “He’s still really excited and kind of on a high,” mom says.