From Being Sick to Scaling Mountains, Andrew Finds Strength to Soar

Seattle Children’s patient Andrew Peterson with Dr. Ghassan Wahbeh and nurse Teresa Wachs on the day of his Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremony.

The numerous merit badges adorning 17-year-old Andrew Peterson’s olive green Boy Scout sash not only signify his accomplishments, but illustrate how far he has come.

Andrew’s journey of overcoming a difficult illness that left him in and out of the hospital during most of his early childhood years, led him to recently receiving the highest achievement in Scouting, attained by only about 2% of all scouts.

“Becoming an Eagle Scout has allowed me to reflect on how much I’ve gone through to get to this point,” Andrew said. “I’m grateful for all of the support I’ve received from various people over the years.”

Among Andrew’s friends and family that were present as he received his Eagle Scout medal during a special ceremony in April, were two guests who witnessed firsthand the transformation Andrew made from being a sick and fragile boy to the confident young man that stood before them.

“There were many ups and downs in Andrew’s health,” said Dr. Ghassan Wahbeh, a gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Gastroenterology and Hepatology clinic that cared for Andrew. “Seeing him up there receiving such a prestigious honor was really inspiring, especially after the remarkable journey he’s been through.”

A positive spirit

When Andrew was a toddler, his parents, Mark and Kristen Peterson, detected several signs that something might be wrong with their son’s health.

“He couldn’t keep down solid food,” Mark said. “Then, when we noticed blood in his stool, we immediately took him to see his primary care doctor.”

After evaluation and no diagnosis was found by his doctor, the Petersons decided to take Andrew directly to Seattle Children’s.

“When we brought him to Seattle Children’s, they knew exactly what it was,” Kristen said. “Andrew had a severe form of inflammatory bowel disease.”

Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, refers to several related illnesses that affect the digestive tract. In these cases, the digestive tract becomes inflamed causing damage to the gut tissue. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD.

“Andrew presented with severe symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, nausea, vomiting and weight loss,” Wahbeh said. “With the intensity of his inflammation, it was challenging to find a suitable treatment for him.”

Wahbeh and his team at the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, including Teresa Wachs, a registered nurse, worked diligently with Andrew and his family to find the best form of treatment that would give him the help he desperately needed.

Yet throughout the arduous process, they noticed Andrew’s positive attitude never seemed to waver.

“He was so tenacious when it came to the treatments he received,” Wachs said. “I had never seen a child that young swallow a pill that big before, and he did it with so much pride.”

There were many hurdles for Andrew as time went on, but that didn’t stop him from his desire to go to school and join Cub Scouts like other young kids his age.

“When I started as a Cub Scout, I loved it,” Andrew said. “I learned that I was the one in charge of setting my own limits, which helped me push through some of the challenges that my illness caused.”

Persevering through the pain

As Andrew made strides in Scouting, his health was hanging by a string.

“I was able to manage for a while, but the pain got to be too much,” Andrew said.

After exhausting all possible medications to treat his IBD, it was decided that Andrew needed to undergo a full colectomy surgery removing his entire large intestine and using the J-pouch procedure.

The J-pouch procedure is a multi-step surgery that involves removing the entire inflamed colon and the lining of the rectum, then an ostomy takedown creating a pouch inside the body from the end of the small intestine to the anus in the form of a ‘J’ shape. Once it heals, it functions as the new bowel.

The surgery, done by Dr. Adam Goldin at Seattle Children’s, confirmed the type of IBD Andrew had, which was ulcerative colitis.

“This J-pouch procedure isn’t for everyone, as each patient with IBD is unique,” Wahbeh said. “But in Andrew’s case, it did the trick.”

Blazing a trail

While there were a few road bumps during recovery, adopting a new diet allowed for Andrew’s health to improve slowly as days passed.

Before his parents knew it, Andrew was up and about, going on outdoor adventures with his Boy Scout troop and getting straight A’s in school.

“It was difficult to imagine that he was once a very sick child,” Kristen said. “From being violently ill and confined to a hospital room to going out in the wilderness and participating in school activities; it’s truly a miracle he is able to do all of these things.”

Aiming to become an Eagle Scout, Andrew went above and beyond the criteria of obtaining the honor and experienced amazing sights while he was at it.

He attended numerous summer camps, and went on several high adventure hikes for over three weeks learning to survive in the remote wilderness, including a 60 mile hike around the Dalton Mountain range in the Yukon territory.

“I climbed and rappelled off the Davis Glacier in Alaska, and helped create and navigate a 110 mile canoeing trip in the Northern Tier of Atikokan, Canada,” Andrew said.

Andrew earned 41 merit badges, double the amount necessary for Eagle Scout eligibility. To round out his Eagle Scout requirements, he led a service project constructing two split rail fences, totaling 55 feet of fencing to protect a pond at the Cougar Creek Preserve on Bainbridge Island demonstrating his leadership skills and benefiting the community.

“Being named an Eagle Scout was an incredible achievement for Andrew,” Mark said, “and we couldn’t be more proud of the young man he’s become.”

“It’s going to be something grand”

As a part of the Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremony in which a Scout will officially be bestowed with the ranking, an American flag that was flown in various locations of significance is presented to the Scout as a tradition.

One of the locations that Andrew asked the flag to be flown was Seattle Children’s.

“It’s like a second home to me,” Andrew said. “Without the care I received at Seattle Children’s and support from people like Dr. Wahbeh and nurse Teresa, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

It was only fitting that Wahbeh and Wachs would take on the honor of raising the flag in front the hospital for all to see.

“It’s truly humbling that we made a positive impact on Andrew’s life,” Wachs said. “I’m grateful to have been part of his journey.”

On April 28, the day of his Court of Honor ceremony, Andrew was presented with the flag by his aunt, Marin, and a special medal signifying his Eagle Scout ranking, carefully pinned onto his shirt by his mother.

“Watching how proud his family was of him was so touching,” Wachs said.

When the master of ceremony turned to Andrew to officially declare him as an Eagle Scout, he concluded with these inspirational words:

“I congratulate you as an Eagle Scout. The eagle soars high and seeks to rest only upon the lofty peaks. As an Eagle Scout, you too must soar high. You must not swerve from the path of duty. Your ideals must be lofty. You must strive to obtain that which is the highest and noblest in life. I hereby close this Eagle Court of Honor and present to you our nation’s newest Eagle Scout, Andrew Peterson.”

A round of applause signified a culmination of Andrew’s long journey through dealing with an illness and overcoming it through perseverance and determination.

In that moment, Kristen couldn’t help but think of the words that Wahbeh spoke to them when Andrew was undergoing treatment at the hospital all of those years ago.

“I’m not sure what Andrew will do in the world, but I can tell you one thing, it’s going to be something grand and he will change countless lives — I promise you that.”