Community Papers

COFFEE WITH: A lesson in courage

Margaret Benson receives Coast Mental Health
Margaret Benson receives Coast Mental Health's Courage to Come Back Award.
— image credit: Dave Roels photo

Even as a little girl, Margaret Benson always knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. It was also very clear to her family — and everyone in the neighbourhood.

Routinely, she’d line up her stuffed animals and pretend she was the teacher. The family’s pets also attended class, but didn’t have the attention span of her Teddy Bears, she jokes. Next she graduated to teaching neighbourhood kids and later got a real teaching degree and started her career at Brooksbank Elementary.

But for a while, it looked like a genetic lung disease would snatch away her dreams.

At 14, Benson was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Back in those days the chronic lung disease severely shortened life expectancy, which was only 15 years at the time.

But she ignored that.

“You do what you do. [You] can’t stop the world and get off,” she says.

“That’s what I’ve done all my life. I don’t know anything different.”

She defied the odds and began teaching at Brooksbank elementary in her early 20s, where she became known as “Mrs. B.”

But in her 30s her lungs began to fail her. She became extremely sick. Her only hope was a double lung transplant, but because she was B+ blood type, which is relatively rare, she was put on a donor wait-list.

As she waited, she continued teaching, now lugging around an oxygen tank in her knapsack and beeper her pocket in case a donor match came up.

But she later had to give up teaching while she waited because she was so frail. Then, in 1999, she got a match.

The seven-and-a-half-hour lung transplant operation went well but she suffered a seizure and stroke during a subsequent operation that left her fighting to regain her equilibrium.

But she had a goal. She’d read about the World Transplant Games while in hospital and she was determined to participate.

Again, she stuck to her overarching mantra: no matter what happens, believe in your dreams, believe in yourself.

Benson participated in her first World Transplant Games in 2003 in France. She came home with gold, silver and bronze medals and has been competing around the world ever since. She currently holds the world record for race/walk in her age category.

But she’s not concerned about accumulating precious metals. She participates in the games to show donor families what a remarkable difference their loved ones have made to recipients and to promote organ donation (she loves to give away her medals to donor families in attendance), a cause she’s very passionate about.

That commitment to educating and inspiring others was recently recognized.

A few weeks ago, Benson, along with North Vancouver heart transplant recipient Jack Palmer, a Grade 9 student, were honoured for their accomplishments during a District of North Vancouver council meeting.

This summer Palmer received the National Canadian Transplant Association’s Youth Award and in May Benson received a prestigious Courage to Come Back Award.

“This was the most humbling experience of my life because I don’t do what I do for awards — I do it because of what it means to me,” says Benson.

Perhaps the best part was the fact Benson was able to share the award with her class.

Benson had to give up teaching because the medication she was on made her susceptible to infection, but was able to return to the classroom four years ago. She now teaches Grade 3 one day a week at Highlands Elementary.  “I love them. So much fun, so much energy,” she says. “I just knew there was something missing — I wanted to be a teacher since I was three.”

When she brought her Courage to Come Back Award for show and tell, the kids were super excited yet very gentle when it came to touching the intricate statue, she says.

It was a good lesson for the young children about what you can accomplish if you “believe and keep plugging on.”

“Like I say, I am home. Teaching is my purest joy,” says Benson, her eyes watery.

—To  help celebrate the 13th anniversary of her lung transplant, Benson is hosting a Gift of Life Zumba party Dec. 1 from 3 to 6 p.m. to promote organ and tissue donor awareness. Location: 4622 Hastings Street, Burnaby. Tickets: $20. For more info, contact Benson at 604-985-6628 or winniethepooh@telus.net.

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