By John Durbin, NeighborhoodNewspapers.com
When Ben Cleveland came into the world, he immediately faced a life-threatening struggle. Born with biliary artesia, a rare liver disease, his survival was in question,
“They told me he had about a 50 percent chance to live a year,” said his mother, Peggie White, “and to become an adult would be extremely rare.”
On July 5 of this year, Cleveland and his family celebrated the 20th anniversary of the day doctors implanted a new liver into his nine-month-old body.
“It was a happy day and a sad day. We cry and laugh,” White said, because thoughts of the family of the liver donor, a two-year-old boy, are never far from mind.
“I always feel for that family,” she said. “It was so good of them to give the love they gave in the midst of tragedy. They did the most selfless thing they could do, and they saved my child.”
Cleveland is functioning well since the surgery two decades ago, although he still has the medical condition that prompted it. He’s been hospitalized 22 times in his life and swallows an average of eight pills a day.
“A transplant doesn’t cure the disease, it just offers a better way to live,” his mother said. “But you wouldn’t know by looking at him what he has been through.”
A 2009 graduate of Chattahoochee High School, Cleveland is studying culinary arts at Gwinnett Technical College. He’s getting hands-on experience in his chosen career this summer as a chef at Camp Will-A-Way, a camp in Winder for children facing serious illnesses and life challenges. His efforts there are inspired by years of great memories at Camp Independence, a week-long summer camp for transplant recipients.
Though he knows professional chefs put in long hard hours, it’s a career Cleveland says he has wanted all his life. “I can do it. I’m a machine,” he said confidently.
The success Cleveland has had is a tribute to him and his family, according to Meg Flynn, public relations coordinator for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “The process of maintaining a transplanted organ is far from easy,” she said. “The cocktail of daily medication, limited lifestyle and overall immune suppression render keeping a healthy transplant organ for 20 years quite the feat.”
As a living example of the importance of organ donation, Cleveland has spoken at fundraising events and at the dedication of the Mason Transplant Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“I know it helps get the word out so other people can have a second chance at life,” he said. “Sharing my story makes people understand organ donation is a pretty big thing.”
White said she hopes people will seriously consider organ donation. “I really want them to think about it before tragedy happens, because it’s very difficult to think about it while tragedy is going on,” she said.
“And even if you’ve signed an organ donor card, it’s very important to let your family know your wishes, because if they don’t know how you felt about it, they may not do it.”