A journey to Africa, years in the making

Dante Priebe, who just graduated in June from Ledyard High School, does not remember the liver transplant he had when he was 2 years old. He just knows the stories that his parents told him. He was sick and crying a lot. His skin turned orange from jaundice. He was rushed to the emergency room, and it was at the hospital that his parents were informed that he needed a liver transplant. His Aunt Cristina was the only suitable donor.

Dante’s father, Charles Priebe, remembers that it all started with a cold, but no fever, and Dante just didn’t seem well. He was taken to his pediatrician on a Wednesday and lab work was done. Soon afterwards, jaundice appeared in Dante’s eyes.

He was admitted to the hospital on a Friday. It turned out that a virus had attacked his liver and it was rapidly destroying it.

It is believed that the virus had been present at birth or shortly thereafter, recalls Charles Priebe.

“We called family and parents because everything was happening rapidly,” he said. “His liver transplant occurred on Sunday. His aunt, my wife’s sister, was the donor. She donated 20 percent of her liver, which was in the lower left lobe.”

Cristina Manfre remembers being in Dante’s hospital room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in the pediatric intensive care unit. She was there with her sister Laura Manfre, brother-in law Charles Priebe and her sister’s in-laws. They found out about Dante needing a liver transplant at the same time as learning of the possibility of a living organ donation. Among many things, Cristina thought, “I can do this, I can volunteer to be a living donor and that at least would be doing something.” She continued, “It was very hard to wait around in the hospital and not know how to help or how to make things better.”

She didn’t know what was coming, but there was never a moment when Cristina thought twice about becoming a donor.

When Dante was about 4 years old, after the transplant, Cristina started traveling to Kenya for work. During her first trips, the African continent and Kenya’s national parks amazed her, giving her a taste of what a safari would be like.

Dante loved animals, and she would send him post cards from all of her trips. She thought that it would be cool for the two of them to do something together to mark a milestone and that a safari would be amazing. That turned into a promise to take him to Africa when he graduated from high school (he plans to attend Hofstra University in the fall).

“It was iffy at the time if I would even make it,” Dante said. “It means a lot to me that she even remembered to take me because I forgot about it because I was just a kid.”

Their 10-day trip this summer took them through three national parks in Tanzania: Tarangire, Lake Manyara, and Serengeti, as well as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The trip was organized by a company called Tanzania Choice Safaris, run by Brenda and Kakasii Kimaro.

“Brenda met with Dante and me several times on Skype to talk to us about what we were interested in doing and seeing,” Cristina said. “She and her husband developed a few itineraries, and I worked with her to finalize the details of the trip.”

Dante has worked at The Boardwalk at Olde Mistick Village for the last two years and said that everyone at work was excited for him. His parents were excited for him as well, though a little nervous about Dante being cleared to travel.

Dante needs to see a transplant team every six months if he is healthy. He goes for labs every two months. If his lab numbers are off then he will often repeat tests the next week, or whatever duration the medical team decides is necessary. Then he makes a trip to Yale New Haven Hospital. He has to do this for the rest of his life.

Brenda kept the final itinerary a surprise.

“Everything worked out as planned,” Cristina said, “and we had an amazing time.” Their safari guide, Lesley, made sure they saw the “best animals in the parks,” according to Cristina, among them lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and others.

Cristina and Dante also went on a few tours to learn about different parts of Tanzanian culture.

One special moment for Dante was when he joined native bush people for one of their hunts.

“They live in the wilderness and hunt for their food. They used arrows that they traded with local blacksmiths. They used poisonous arrows for larger animals. We followed them for a little while, but didn’t see anything. It was still pretty neat,” said Dante.

“It really was an incredible trip and special for so many reasons,” Cristina said. “It was nice to spend time with Dante and for him to see one of the countries that I travel to for work. That was very special for me.”

“The trip to Africa was fantastic!” Dante said, “A moment that sticks out to me is when we were watching a rock structure that looked like it was from the Lion King and we had been watching it for a while when all of a sudden a leopard cub jumped out. That was cool.”

Aidan Schuler of Ledyard, a student at the Williams School in New London, is part of the Times’ young journalists’ initiative.

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