She watched her son of 6 weeks old go purple in the face on a hotel bed in Loris, outside of Myrtle Beach. Brianna Peeler, a 23-year-old mother and certified nursing assistant, performed chest compressions on Mason until he regained air in his lungs. This night not only changed the Peelers lives forever, but was the beginning of their son’s complex medical journey to recovery.
At birth, Mason was her healthiest baby of three and the only one to go full term. But ever since the day he was born Brianna has had to regularly perform CPR on him.
After multiple trips to a pediatrician to find out the source of her son’s complications, Brianna was told Mason had acid reflux. She was breastfeeding at the time so she switched to formula, thinking Mason possibly had a milk allergy. The yellow hue in his eyes went overlooked, indicating that he could have a liver or gallbladder deficiency.
Mason was 7 pounds 8 ounces when he was born and 4 pounds when his condition was discovered.
After a series of tests and examinations at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital, Mason was stabilized and transported to Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC). MUSC was chosen because it’s the only liver transplant program in South Carolina. Over the past 25 years, MUSC Health has helped more than 1,500 patients receive transplants.
MUSC performed anatomy scans and informed Brianna and her husband Nic that due to the displacement of Mason’s major organs, veins from his heart to liver and lower body had stopped forming. This meant he would need to get a liver transplant which is estimated to cost between $1 million to $3.5 million.
Medical personnel confirmed that Mason was born with two conditions, Biliary Atresia and Heterotaxy Polysplenia. When an infant develops these conditions, rare but usually two to eight weeks after birth, bile flow from the liver to the gallbladder is blocked. This causes the bile to be trapped inside the liver, quickly causing damage and scarring of the liver cells (cirrhosis) and eventually liver failure.
“If I would have lost him without being diagnosed I would just blame myself,” Brianna said. “I don’t want any parent to have to go through this. I want more research on this disease because this isn’t fair.”
After four surgeries and five months of being readmitted to MUSC’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) on a week-to-week basis, Mason was put on a liver transplant list three weeks ago. Brianna says doctors were hoping that Mason, now 8 months old, could make it to 1 year old before the liver transplant, but recent complications with his veins suggest a shorter timeline.
Brianna says MUSC has yet to disclose the time frame of Mason’s wait on the transplant list. As of now Mason is listed as a ‘medium priority.’ Brianna says Mason’s liver is in the process of hardening and that she was told he wouldn’t be listed as a ‘high priority’ until or if his liver develops abnormal growth.
“I sit here and hold him and ask him if he’s going to stay with me because nobody knows,” Brianna said.
While awaiting news from MUSC on Mason’s status for a liver transplant, one of the biggest hardships for the Peeler family has been money. During Mason’s procedures away from home, both Brianna and Nic were both laid off from their jobs. During the 3-hour commutes from home to MUSC, Brianna and Nic have been sleeping at hotels and in their car, while their other two other sons, Brayden and Brenton, stay with their grandparents.
“We’ve spent every holiday, my sons’ birthdays, mine and our anniversary at the hospital,” Brianna said. “Even New Year’s, right when the clock struck 12 Mason stopped breathing, so we loaded up and went to Charleston.”
When they’re not on the road, the Peelers still don’t sleep in their home due to water damage from tree fall during the past two hurricanes that hit the Myrtle Beach area. Given their situation, they have since applied to the Ronald McDonald House and have been put on a waiting list.
Brianna admitted initial fundraising efforts through Facebook posts, t-shirts and hats yielded no monetary success. But then the Peelers misfortune took a turn for the better a couple months ago when two colleagues from Mount Pleasant’s Pinnacle Financial Partners got involved. Consumer real estate specialists Melody Poole and Martha Gish-Toney “M&M” have never met in person because Gish-Toney lives out of state, but both read Brianna’s Facebook post about sleeping in her car and said that was enough.
“They really don’t have a lot of support and they are very young,” Gish-Toney said. “We are not only helping them financially, but we’re also advising them and trying to help them make the best decisions they can.”
Poole recalls going to MUSC to meet the Peelers for the first time and saying “You don’t know me, but I’m here to help you.” She reached out of her pocket and begged the couple to take $200 cash and go clean up and rest at a nearby hotel. From that night on the Peelers involved Poole and Gish-Toney in virtually all of their family affairs.
“I don’t just do this. I know it’s real; it’s true and they’re good people. I don’t have a problem helping them because I know they’re going to pay it forward too,” Poole said. “I feel like they are a part of my family.”
Every week the family comes to town, Poole meets them at Pinnacle or a designated location to provide them money for food. Hotels in the area have even helped cushion the Peelers’ cause by discounting their stays.
In total, Poole and Gish-Toney have voluntarily given more than $1,200 of their own money to help provide food and lodging for Brianna and Nic. They even recently gave them a loan to pay their car insurance.
“We want them to focus on Mason and not have to worry about how they’re going to survive financially or get resources,” Gish-Toney said.
Pinnacle has a budget in place specifically for “doing the right thing, no questions asked” philanthropic opportunities such as the Peeler family’s situation. The bank has yet to utilize the funds; however, the Poole and Gish-Toney recently opened an account for the Peelers in which bank employees have been donating money of their own.
As of now $2,400 has been raised, with a goal of $150,000 to cover Mason’s immediate needs. The other portion of the funds raised will go toward a new home for the Peelers.
Once Mason gets his transplant surgery, the family will be expected to stay in Charleston for two to four months and there will be a great need for short-term living accommodations. For more information or to donate to Mason’s medical expenses, visit gofundme.com/mason-peeler-and-family-fund.
“Every minute is crucial for Mason. Every penny or dime would help,” Brianna said. “If it was your child you would do anything in your power.”