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Principal on the Mend

Talk about keeping a secret. Greenbriar East Elementary Principal Rebecca Pearson was on the list for a liver transplant for six years, but only three people at her school even knew she was ailing.

So when parents and teachers learned May 16 that she'd had a successful transplant, the day before, they were stunned.

"I was shocked, because there was not one sign of her being ill," said parent Anna Nurmi. "She was everywhere — at every event — and always with a smile and with kind things to say to the children and parents."

"The woman just went full-blast, all the time," said parent Cheryl Phillips. "You never knew she was sick — she's amazing," added parent Donna Bell. "It'll be interesting to see how she is at full-strength."

And they'll get to find out soon, because Pearson is recuperating rapidly. Her surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took 12 hours, but she came home just 10 days later, on May 25. And she plans to return to GBE, full-time, the first week in August.

"We're excited about her coming back," said Bell. "She's a wonderful person, and the kids always come first with her." Said Phillips: "The children love her, and she knows all 700 of them by name."

Pearson's secretary, Charlotte Riley was one of the few who knew of her illness. "I could definitely tell because she'd get tired," she said. "But she didn't let it affect how hard she worked — she's phenomenal."

GBE principal since 1989, Pearson didn't tell anyone she was going to have a transplant because there were so many false alarms. "Between December and April, I was called six times to come [to the hospital]," she explained. "But the livers weren't functioning properly."

Finally, though, doctors received one in perfect condition from a 17-year-old, Eastern Shore boy who'd committed suicide. "They gave me 80 percent of his liver, and 20 percent went to an 18-month-old," said Pearson. "These guys are miracle workers. And they expect my new liver to regenerate itself into a full liver."

Doctors told her last summer that her liver was deteriorating and she'd need a transplant as soon as possible. But they didn't know why until they removed it. "They discovered I'd had a blood clot in a vein under the liver that prevented blood from going to the liver, so it was shrinking and dying," she said. "They said it was an auto-immune disease."

Her biggest challenge now is being patient until she's fully healed. But, said Pearson, "I'm getting stronger every day. They did a fantastic job at Johns Hopkins. Teams of doctors worked with my surgeon, and they were all excellent."

Pearson's mother, 78, daughter and three grandchildren all live with her, so her nurturing extends beyond the school. And when she awoke from surgery, they were at her bedside. The community, too, has rallied 'round her, and members of her church, First Baptist in Manassas, have kept her well-supplied with meals. Said Pearson: "The love that has been poured out from my school, church, community, family and friends has just been overwhelming."

And knowing her love for children, one Saturday in the hospital, her surgeon brought in his own children to visit her. Seeing them really perked her up, she said: "And my children [from GBE] sent me videos and cards with their pictures, and that's what kept me going. The teachers, too, were so kind. I had to get up and fight because of my kids. They uplifted me, and I feel like I can handle this now."

Pearson's been an educator for 32 years — 23 in Fairfax County — as a classroom teacher, area-office resource teacher, counselor, assistant principal, principal and even in personnel. Now, in gratitude for all her hard work at Greenbriar East, the parents have opened an account at First Virginia Bank to help cover some of the costs that her insurance won't.

Said Phillips and Bell: "She's helped so many of us in this community; now is our chance to give something back." Mail Boxes Etc. of Greenbriar has donated a mailbox address. Contributions payable to Rebecca Pearson may be sent to: Rebecca Pearson, 4094 Majestic Lane, #125, Fairfax, VA 22033.

"I was just doing my job," she said. "I've always loved working with children, and I love the Greenbriar East community." Meanwhile, GBE has truly missed her. "It's definitely not the same without her," said Riley. "It'll be nice to have her back."