Thanksgiving is the perfect time to stop and remember to give thanks, not just for the food on the table, but also for family, friends, and good health. Three Lake County residents share their stories of adversity, triumph, and why, ultimately, they are nothing but grateful.
photos: Fred Lopez+Shemir Wiles
A brave face
Despite the challenges he has faced, Eustis resident Jeb Bolivar always keeps a positive outlook on life and a sense of appreciation for all his blessings.
Writer: Shemir Wiles
With the confidence and swagger of a Hollywood superstar, Jeb Bolivar isn’t shy to admit he has a big ego. When he talks, it’s with conviction, and he can be a bit audacious at times — maybe even brash. But Jeb also has a softer side, a side that likes to crack jokes and talk about building a future with his girlfriend. He proves it’s never smart to judge someone by their appearance alone. He is living proof that true beauty — the beauty of the human spirit — lies so much deeper than that.
In 34 years, Jeb has never allowed his facial deformity to define who he is. And he has no plans to ever start. “I’ve never really cared about it. I’m going to be me regardless,” Jeb explains. “I have never given my condition much thought because I’ve always had the support here in Lake County. I try to keep a good attitude and I’m always thankful, thankful for the people who have been there for me.”
Jeb has lived most of his life in Lake County although he was born in Portland, Ore. In the hospital is where his adoptive parents, Joanne and Mario Bolivar, first laid eyes on him. Jeb had already spent seven months in the hospital because he was born with cystic hygroma, an overgrowth of lymph node tissue on his face that affected the appearance of his jawbone, as well as his ability to eat and breathe on his own. Adoption bureaucracy kept him in the hospital another seven months before he finally went home with the Bolivars.
In 1990, Jeb and his parents left the cold in Oregon to enjoy warmer weather in Palm Bay. Two years later, they packed up and moved again — this time to Tavares. Jeb attended both Tavares Middle School and Tavares High School, but it was in high school where Jeb says he truly made a name for himself. “I was very involved in sports. I was on the bowling team and a student equipment manager for the basketball, baseball, and football teams. Everyone showed me love, especially the guys on the football team.”
Like any other teenager, Jeb enjoyed hanging out with friends, talking to girls, and being involved with different school activities. Nevertheless, Jeb still had his fair share of challenges. For example, during lunch, he could never truly eat with his friends because his disability prevented him from eating solid foods. He receives nourishment through a feeding tube. And from 1994 to 1998 while still balancing the demands of school, Jeb traveled back and forth to Gainesville several times a month to receive chemotherapy as an attempt to shrink the large mass on his face. Naturally, the chemotherapy made him severely nauseated.
“Sickness was the only side effect it caused, but it still made me miserable,” he says. “The chemo did help shrink it down though. Before chemo, I could palm it; it was that big. But even after the four years of chemo, it was still there.”
Jeb eventually decided to call it quits on the treatments. “They asked if I wanted to go on,” he says. “I prayed about it and realized it just wasn’t my time yet.” So after high school, Jeb moved back to Oregon with his parents; however, he quickly returned to Lake County in 2001. “It was too damn cold,” Jeb says and laughs. “I said, ‘No, I gotta go home.’”
Settled back in his old stomping grounds, Jeb started his own lawn care business and became involved with Camp Challenge in Sorrento, a nonprofit that provides recreational activities for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. Then in 2009, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences contacted Jeb. They offered to perform reconstructive surgery on his face, something Jeb had thought about before but never thought would actually happen. “Technology had changed since the 1990s, so I knew this could be done and done well,” Jeb says. “I talked to God about it and felt I was ready to go through with this. It was my time.”
On Dec. 28, 2009, Jeb underwent the first of many reconstructive surgeries. It lasted 23 hours and involved removing the old bone from his jaw and harvesting bone from his leg to form a new jawbone. He spent a little over two weeks in the hospital before returning to his home, which was then in Mount Dora, to undergo six months of rehabilitation to relearn how to walk. Determined to be fully mobile again, Jeb went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane in less than two months. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m stubborn,” he says. “I would throw the walker away and hop on one foot to get where I needed to go. I was doing everything myself. To me, it was rock bottom not being able to walk. But I knew I would again.”
Since that first operation, Jeb has undergone seven more at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock. “They operate on me, I come home, and then I heal up just in time to have another operation,” he says. “I don’t know what they are going to do until I get there. All I do is go when they tell me to go.”
To get to Arkansas, Jeb depends on Angel Flight Southeast. Angel Flight is comprised of more than 650 volunteer pilots who use their own airplanes, fuel, and time to provide free air transportation to distant medical facilities when commercial air service is not available, impractical, or simply not affordable. Over the years, Jeb has become friends with many of the pilots who have helped him on his journey. “Many of the pilots I still talk to every day. It’s like you become lifelong friends.”
Jeb has four more surgeries before his reconstruction is complete. Thanks to the operations thus far, he’s been able to eat real food for the first time. “I still have my feeding tube, but I’ve been able to eat a little bit,” he says. “I can eat soft foods like applesauce and mashed potatoes.” And soon, Jeb will also be able to remove his tracheostomy tube and breathe completely on his own. “I had to have my trach back in the day because I couldn’t breathe without it. Now, I’m able to breathe on my own, but I’ve kept the trach as a precaution. During these last few surgeries, the doctors are going to open my airway up a little more so I can finally get rid of it.”
As for the future, Jeb is thinking of proposing to his girlfriend Mandy, who lives in Daytona Beach. “I’m taking a different route with this relationship. I met her at Camp Challenge and we just really hit it off. It’s possible we’ll get engaged in a couple of months.” He also wants to stay involved with Angel Flight as an act of gratitude for everything the organization has given him over the years.
“If it wasn’t for Angel Flight, I would have never been able to go back and forth to Arkansas. There is no way I could have afforded it. I’m very thankful for the pilots who volunteer to do this. They are truly heroes.”
When natural birth was not an option, a local couple discovered a bundle of joy through adoption.
Writer: James Combs
At the conclusion of their first date in 2008, Dr. Scott Wehrly and Talia Ivison openly shared their ambitions.
“He told me he wanted to get married but didn’t want children,” Talia says. “I told him I wanted children but didn’t want to get married.”
It’s funny how things change when you fall in love. They married in March 2010 and made the decision to raise a child together. Since that time, the Tavares couple has experienced a remarkable journey that has taken them through the indescribable frustration of infertility to the wonderful joy of parenthood. They’ve provided a loving home for their 2-year-old daughter, Zoë, and in return she has filled their hearts with love and happiness.
“I named her Zoë because in Greek, Zoë means life,” says Scott, an ophthalmologist at Lake Eye Associates. “Certainly, she has added so much life to our home and has brought Talia and me closer.”
A lifelong, loving home
Although Scott already had two teenagers from a previous marriage, Talia dreamed about being able to birth her first child. Her excitement was quickly dampened after realizing she and her husband could not conceive naturally. As a result, she underwent four cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a process where sperm is injected into a woman’s egg and the egg is implanted back into the woman. On the first cycle, Talia became pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. After failing to become pregnant on the second and third cycles, Talia developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome during the fourth cycle, which forced her to quit.
“I was 29 and felt becoming pregnant would be easy for me,” says Talia. “Needless to say, I felt like I failed because I could not do something that should be natural for a woman my age. Many of my friends were pregnant at that time, and that was hard on me.”
Scott’s then-18-year-old daughter, Caitlin, encouraged them to consider adoption. The couple began attending adoption seminars, and after countless hours of research, Talia discovered an attorney in Winter Park who matches birth parents and adoptive parents. It just so happened the attorney was representing an 18-year-old Orlando girl who was six months pregnant and had chosen to put her baby up for adoption.
“After talking to the attorney on the phone for the first time, I drove to her office that day and gave her our 10-page adoption profile book,” Talia says. “The birth mom was choosing between five families.”
In May 2011, the Wehrlys met the pregnant teenager, Mary, and her boyfriend at a restaurant in Orlando. “They asked us many questions that night,” Talia explains. “Then one week later on Mother’s Day, Mary sent me a text message that read, ‘Congratulations, you’re a mom!’ I was so excited. Even though Mary wasn’t going to have the baby for three more months, I went to all her doctor appointments.”
On August 10, 2011, Zoë was born at Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando. “I realized right then that carrying a baby for nine months doesn’t make you a great mom,” says Talia. “Spending a lifetime with a child is what makes you a great mom. Scott and I felt an instant bond with Zoë the minute we held and kissed her.”
Today, Zoë is a beautiful two year old with brown eyes and strawberry-blond hair. She attends a Montessori school in Mount Dora where Talia serves as the class mom. Recently, when the family threw a big birthday bash for Zoë, Talia invited Mary and her parents to attend.
“I love Mary and consider her part of my family. I always text message her photographs of Zoë. Mary gave Zoë the greatest gift you could give a child — the gift of life and love. Also, I thank my husband every day for allowing us to have Zoë. He already had two teenage children, so having a baby and starting a new chapter in his life at age 48 was a big step.”