WALLINGFORD \u2014 When Aliza Shapiro asked her ill 5-year-old daughter Vada, \u201cIf you could have anything you want, what would you have?\u201d the child said, \u201ca cookie.\u201d When told to give another answer, Vada responded, \u201ca unicorn.\u201d Vada, who suffers from a rare, debilitating nervous system disorder involving a hemisphere of the brain, actually got her third choice \u2014 a puppy. And now, she has something better than a cookie or unicorn \u2014 Vada has \u201ca best friend,\u201d her mother said. Penny, an adorable mini golden retriever \u2014 so gentle she\u2019ll sit next to Vada in her pink Cadillac Power Wheels car \u2014 has been not only an emotional support and friend to Vada at a time the pandemic shut down the girl\u2019s social life, but Penny also is making the girl physically stronger by keeping her active as she battles Rasmussen\u2019s encephalitis. \u201cThey\u2019re together all the time except for doctors\u2019 appointments,\u201d and, even then, Penny comes along for the ride, Aliza Shapiro said. \u201cThe goal is when Penny\u2019s old enough is for her to be trained as a service dog for mobility.\u201d For now, Penny keeps Vada moving and building muscle strength and balance through play \u2014 they walk, toss the ball, climb stairs, follow each other and play tug of war with a rope. They even do tricks together. Rasmussen\u2019s encephalitis is a rare inflammatory condition that attacks one hemisphere of the brain and causes epilepsy and cognitive decline that affects both physical and mental ability, Aliza Shapiro said. Doctors believe Rasmussen\u2019s encephalitis is an autoimmune disorder, but they are not sure, Shapiro said. Vada lives with muscle weakness \u2014 she can\u2019t lift her right foot, and she wears a brace \u2014 and has numerous seizures each day, but not the type that make a person lose consciousness. \u201cShe\u2019s a very happy little girl. You\u2019d never know what she lives through every day,\u201d Shapiro said, noting Vada even \u201cdances through the seizures,\u201d when she can. Vada receives physical therapy and occupational therapy, and soon will start speech therapy because sometimes she can\u2019t find the right word even though she knows what she wants to say. She has tried 11 seizure medications, and is on now on three such medications, Shapiro said. The only known cure for the disease is a major surgery in which surgeons disconnect one hemisphere of the brain, possibly becoming seizure-free, Shapiro said. The patient can learn to walk again, but it would cause some loss of fine motor control and vision impairments, she said. The brain surgery could be in the future for Vada, as some of those who have had it have graduated from college, married and gone on to lead independent lives, Shapiro said. Vada\u2019s affected side is on the left, which might put her language ability at risk were she to have surgery. The question about what Vada might wish for was posed by Shapiro because the family contacted Make-A-Wish Connecticut at the suggestion of a professional at Boston Children\u2019s Hospital, where doctors had confirmed Vada\u2019s Rasmussen\u2019s encephalitis following a surgery in January. The organization, headquartered in Trumbull, was able to grant the wish because of a donation of more than $10,000 from Quality Subaru in Wallingford. \u201cWe chose this because we\u2019re trying to make a child\u2019s life better,\u201d said Jack Blanchard, customer relations manager for the Wallingford dealership. \u201cIt is a beautiful, beautiful dog and they bring a lot of happiness to people in general \u2014 that unconditional love.\u201d In addition to the dog, which was flown in from a breeder in Utah, Vada received a year of veterinary care for Penny as well as toys, dog accessories, dog food and a gift card to Petco. Vada chose the name Penny off a list provided by her parents and that made Shapiro happy because her late mother, Pamela, had the nickname Penny. When the Shapiros decided they wanted a mini golden retriever breed because it is small and sheds less, they contacted a breeder in Utah with a long waitlist. But the breeder, Michelle Taylor, was so touched by the story that she made Penny available, as she had held her out of a litter. Aliza Shapiro and Vada\u2019s father, Ethan Shapiro, said Penny is like a dream puppy \u2014 easygoing, smart and playful \u2014 but not over-playful. \u201cShe\u2019s amazing. We could not have gotten a better dog,\u201d Aliza Shapiro said. \u201cI knew it was going to be a good dog because the breeder treated her dogs like their family dogs.\u201d Ethan Shapiro, a dog person who grew up with dogs and is in charge of Penny\u2019s professional training lessons, said, \u201cEverything we are doing is to set her up to be service dog and help Vada.\u201d Once that happens, when Penny is old enough, she can accompany Vada to appointments. Vada gives Penny a \u201cgood morning kiss\u201d each day and sings her lullaby each night \u2014 \u201cAll is Found\u201d from Frozen II \u2014 \u201cWhere the north wind meets the sea, there\u2019s a river full of memory. Sleep, my darling, safe and sound. For in this river all is found.\u201d \u201cI love Penny,\u201d Vada told a Register reporter. When Vada met Penny for the first time, she exclaimed, \u201cOh, my God, it\u2019s my dog,\u201d and kept hugging her. She had seen pictures. Since there has been a pandemic and Vada hasn\u2019t started school yet, the only playmate she\u2019s had is her beloved older sister, Mila, 9. The family moved here from Florida a few years ago and that\u2019s where Vada\u2019s best friend lives. \u201cEmotionally, it\u2019s just having a best friend,\u201d Aliza Shapiro said of Penny. Ethan Shapiro said the medical ordeal has been tough. \u201cIt gets to the point where you can\u2019t do anything for your kid and there\u2019s no worse feeling in the world, knowing there\u2019s nothing you can physically do to make your child better,\u201d he said. Carin Buckman, spokeswoman for Make-A-Wish Connecticut, said the organization is in the business of delivering hope \u2014 more important in these trying times. \u201cHope is a superpower that kids living with critical illnesses, like Vada, have been tapping into long before many of us heard the word \u2018lockdown,\u2019\u201d Buckman said. \u201cThe promise of a wish is so much more than a temporary escape. As we\u2019ve seen with Vada and her puppy Penny, her wish has given Vada a wellspring of strength to keep fighting for better days.\u201d Anyone interested in contacting the Shapiros can do so by emailing email@example.com.