Youth gets liver, chance at life

Posted: Monday, September 24, 2007

Shortly after arriving home from Seattle in early August, 13-year-old Jacob Eckerman hooked a 65-pound king salmon.

"He couldn't bring it in (but) he tried," said his dad, Keith Eckerman, sitting next to Jacob. "It weighed as much as you."

On May 20, Jacob was lying on an operating table with tubes in his neck and chest receiving a new liver. Now, he's back at Soldotna Middle School, showing his friends a new scar across his belly dubbed "The Mercedes," playing with his new kitten, Sir Patrick, and eagerly awaiting the debut of the video game Halo 3. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are grateful to have their son healthy and safe and are ready to settle back into old routines.

"(Jacob's) just gaining strength," said his mother, Michelle Eckerman. "He can't have contact sports (or) run very far yet."

After suffering what looked like a severe bout of the flu, Jacob was diagnosed with Wilson's Disease, which causes the body to retain copper, and flown to Seattle Children's Hospital. After three operations, doctors finally managed to complete his liver transplant, but several infections and other complications left Jacob in isolation for nearly a month and a half, causing him to lose a lot of weight.

"They didn't want us leaving," Michelle said. "It was really hard."

When Jacob wasn't in isolation, he and his parents stayed at the Ronald McDonald House just across the street from the hospital. There was no shortage of activities there. Jacob was able to learn and refine his skills at pingpong and try his hand at Nintendo Wii, but as he regained his strength, he was ready to come home.

"It was really boring," he said.

"The doctors told us, 'When he starts getting better you're going to go stir-crazy,'" Michelle said.

Michelle and Keith were pleased with the Ronald McDonald House. The Eckermans paid for everything in the beginning, then the Ronald McDonald House took over when their health insurance maxed out. Community members chipped in, too, holding bake sales, garage sales and soup suppers.

"All the fundraising was like a miracle," Keith said. "We came out almost even."

There are a few more surprises waiting for Jacob. As a transplant patient, Jacob qualifies for the Make a Wish Foundation and is already receiving portions of his wish. In his room is a brand-new, 37-inch flat screen HDTV, the first component of a Halo-themed entertainment center complete with an XBox 360. The rest of the center will arrive soon and Jacob will be first in line for the nationwide opening of the video game at Hawk's Games on Friday.

Michelle said the doctors told her that Wilson's Disease is confined to the liver, so Jacob won't get it again, but because it's genetic he's still a carrier. Jacob's also in the process of being weaned off of several medications, though there are some he'll have to take for the rest of his life.

"He dumps 'em out in a little pill thing just like the old folks do," Michelle said, adding that they just returned from Seattle where Jacob received his six-week checkup. He'll have to get another checkup and more lab work done next year. "(The nurses) were so excited and impressed."

Now that Jacob's back home and everything is back to normal, his family can crack jokes about his liver, or as Jacob puts it, "his leever". Even though Jacob didn't name his new liver, his father had a novel idea of what to do with the old one:

"I wanted to take the old liver, put it in a plastic Ziploc bag and shoot it with a BB gun," he said.

That didn't happen, but the Eckermans are still happy and grateful to everyone in the community.

"Being on the receiving end is more different than being on the giving end," Michelle said. "We have no idea who did what, (but) we're all home and we picked up where we left off."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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