Scott Prieto was dying right before his mother’s eyes.
His liver was failing and time was running out. Holly Prieto felt helpless. All she could do was hope and pray as she watched her 3-year-old son drift into a coma right before he was whisked away to the operating room.
She still remembers those dark moments inside a room at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles 15 years later. It was just a week after her son was diagnosed with a rare and untraceable strain of viral hepatitis with acute liver failure. Doctors said the only way to save his life was a liver transplant.
“I just remember praying please, Carolyn, please don’t back out,” Holly Prieto said this week.
Carolyn Bean, a 31-year-old Five Cities woman, was one of nearly 80 people who responded to a flurry of emails sent by a family friend on behalf of the Prietos pleading for a donor to save their son’s life in the days following the grim diagnosis.
Bean didn’t back out. She followed through on her promise and gave part of her healthy liver to Scott. The Tribune shared their story in 2003.
Fast forward to April 11 — exactly 15 years after the successful transplant — Scott, now a senior at Paso Robles High School, signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Cal State San Marcos in a private ceremony with family and friends.
It was a moment that Holly Prieto and his father, Chris, both longtime county employees, could have never imagined sitting in that hospital room all those years ago. But there he was, their miracle baby Scotty — as they like to call him — a healthy and strong 18-year-old ready to tackle the next challenge head-on.
It's just as he has done every day since he left the hospital.
“It’s insane looking back. That was 15 years ago, sitting in the hospital in L.A. and wondering what is going to happen. It was all unknown at that point,” Scott said. “On my signing day, it was like everything came full circle, and it was amazing to be a part of that. It was a great moment.”
‘Baseball gave him that purpose’
The sun is just starting to set over Bauer Speck Elementary School on a cool night in Paso Robles, and Scott and his younger brother Casey are the last ones left on the baseball field after practice. Scott, an assistant coach for his brother’s youth baseball team, and Casey are taking turns at the plate.
“Nice pitch,” Scott says to Casey after he delivers a fast ball.
Scott should know. As a natural left-hander, Scott’s fastball hovers around 88 mph, with the ability to hit 92 if he’s really feeling it. He’s also got a nasty split-finger fast ball that he calls his best pitch.
Despite his talents, it wasn’t easy catching the eyes of college scouts early on.
“It’s hard for me. The disadvantage is being short. I am 5-foot-8, and that’s rounding it off,” he said with a big smile. “I just had to take my size and work on the other things that I can control. I can’t control how tall I am, but I can control how hard I throw if I throw strikes and keep my composure on the mound.”
He’s had to keep his composure off the field, too, as he continues to monitor the health of his transplanted liver and suppressed immune system while trying to maintain a normal childhood. His routine includes daily medications, blood draws every week and regular liver biopsies all while making sure he eats right, exercises and avoids getting sick.
There is always a risk of the disease returning.
“It was really important to Chris and I that he wasn’t defined by being a sick kid or defined by a transplant,” Holly Prieto said. “We wanted to make sure he understood you have family, you have friends, you have an arm to throw. We wanted him to use all those gifts and not stop.”
He played youth baseball growing up but decided not to join the team at Paso Robles High School. Instead, he took the unconventional route, opting to play in a number of showcase events with a development program called Baseball Factory. His parents say they were lucky enough to have the means to help him reach his goals. They hired personal trainers, pitching coaches and mindful coaches because they could see how important baseball was to him.
“I think baseball was that one thing that kept him moving forward,” said Holly Prieto, who has been a SLO County social worker for the past 20 years.
Holly Prieto said Baseball Factory pitching coach Craig Minetto was an important part of Scott’s development. Minetto said it was last year when he really saw Scott blossom as a pitcher.
“He is such a strong kid, and he is determined. We just needed to funnel and control that,” Minetto said.
Eventually, Scott found confidence and realized that everything he had been through could be used to excel on the diamond.
“Every time you step on the mound you got to battle and you got to compete and just push through,” Scott said, comparing his health struggles to his past experiences on the mound. “If you are not having the greatest outing, you have to work with what you have and use it to your advantage.”
Since then, the scholarship offers came rolling in. He found a perfect match in San Marcos, a school not too far from home with a coaching staff that he loved. The coaches there like that he has a fresh arm and a lot of raw talent.
“You hear about everything he’s been through, and you’re like, 'Wow, this kid is destined for some good stuff to happen to him,'” Minetto said. “I think his past experiences really help him. He’s been through the worst so the pressure from baseball is no big deal from him.”
The Donor Today
With all the people who have helped Scott in his life, from coaches to parents to doctors, no one has had a bigger impact than Bean, who now works as a librarian in Atlanta. Holly Prieto said she tries to keep Bean updated on her son’s life and tries to express her gratitude as much as she can.
“When you look at Scotty and you look at what he’s been able to do with his life and what would have been cut so short at 3 years old, I am so grateful,” Holly Prieto said. “I could die tomorrow and be completely happy with what he’s done. Thank God Caroyln did something because I can’t imagine not having him.
“Even now she says, ‘let me know if you need a kidney!’”
Bean’s giving is certainly not common. In 2014, only about 330 of the 7,200 liver transplants performed involved living donors. At the same time, nearly 15,000 people were registered on the waiting list for a liver transplant, according to Mayo Clinic.
Scott’s message to Bean, who could not be reached for comment, when they speak is simple: Thank you.
“I am so happy to be alive, and I am here every day proving that it was the right choice and that I deserved the gift that I got and I am using it for good,” Scott said.
Scott will graduate from Paso Robles High School in June. When he arrives on the campus of San Marcos in August, he plans to study political science and economics with the goal of representing California in some way down the road.
“I just would like to see the world progress and the world get better,” he said.
He also hopes to become more involved with transplant patients in the future, especially kids. And who could be better? He knows a thing or two about the best way to make it through difficult times.
“I think the important thing is just don’t stop. Keep going forward,” he said. “No one is ever perfect, so you can always work harder to be better. Don’t stop until you can do that, until you can help others and be that person that you want to be.”