LORAIN — When Debbie George and her sons were told they were the recipients of the 27th annual American Cancer Society Living Angel Award, their first reaction wasn’t one of pride.
“We were incredibly embarrassed to get this award,” the Avon Lake mother said minutes after the family were announced recipients of the honor Saturday evening during the LifeSavers Ball at DeLuca’s Place in the Park.
“This belongs to everyone who supported and loved us,” Debbie George said.
“We couldn’t believe how incredibly loved we felt,” George said. “And so much of it was from total strangers … people we didn’t even know.”
Debbie George told the gathering about her son’s fortitude and unswerving positive attitude throughout.
“Jeremy never doubted he would make it,” she said.
An obviously proud mother whose voice was momentarily stilled by emotion a few times as she spoke, Debbie George described Jeremy, 22, as “a shy boy” who grew into “a strong, determined young man” during a seven-month battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2008 while a high school senior.
That battle appeared to end with the spread of the disease to his central nervous system, according to Dr. Alexander Zolli, who described the family’s experiences in remarks preceding the award presentation.
But the teen’s team of oncologists at University Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland had one more option — a stem cell transplant, Zolli said.
Jeremy, who was 18 at the time, found an excellent match in his younger brother Ben, now 16, but 12 at the time.
Despite bearing what his mother described as the weight of the world, her younger son displayed “such courage” during the transplant, which took place two days before Christmas.
In addition to support they received from family, friends, the Avon Lake schools and community, and their church, the Georges know they had help from a very distinctive source as well.
“We know that divine intervention played a part in this as well,” Debbie George said.
The family’s church, Avon Lake United Church of Christ, made weekly dinners for the family, according to Ben.
Jeremy was on prayer lists in three different countries and received support from many individuals and groups that didn’t even know him, including a Catholic girls school in Pennsylvania.
Likening his experience to surviving a storm, Jeremy told the gathering “you are not the same person you were going in.”
“Storms have a purpose,” Jeremy said. “You have to look for it.”
His ordeal taught him many things, including being grateful.
“Life is short,” Jeremy said.
Ben encouraged everyone to become a donor, as he was for his older brother.
“Only 2 percent on are the donor registry,” Ben said, noting that some 3,000 people die annually because no donor match is found in time.
The Avon Lake family was chosen from 30 nominees.
The honor is open to people who have battled cancer themselves or those who work with cancer patients including doctors, nurses, and volunteers.
A committee made up of attorneys, businesspeople and others who remain anonymous review letters that detail nominees’ struggles, experiences and accomplishments to select an honoree.
Zolli is the only individual in the medical field to be involved with the committee, although he doesn’t vote.
George and her sons “proved how limited cancer really is,” Zolli said.
“It did not cripple their love, it did not shatter their hope … it did not conquer their spirit,” he said.
Today, Jeremy is majoring in electronic sports media at Kent State University and his cancer is in remission.
Searching for a meaningful way to pay it forward for all of the love and support they received, George and her sons have worked with friends to create Jeremy Cares Inc., a non-profit foundation that has provided more than $65,000 since 2009 to help families whose children are grappling with cancer and other serious illness.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.