Record-setting Peachtree Academy runner Ben Clements suffered three spontaneous pneumothoraxes in less than six months. While it put his athletic career on hold, the ordeal only strengthened his faith as he moves forward into an uncertain future.
It was still early morning and already there were signs this day would not go as planned. The late arrival of one of the cross-country teams, along with a timer malfunction, had delayed the start of the race by nearly an hour. The sun and the temperature were rising quickly.
Ben Clements, a 16-year-old homeschooler who competes for Peachtree Academy, had a sophomore season goal of running a 5K in 18:35. On Sept. 17, 2022, the “faster course” in Fayetteville had looked like a great opportunity to do so. “I knew going in [that] this was going to be the race,” Ben said. However, the late start resulted in unusually hot conditions and slower than anticipated times. Ben was unable to maintain the pace for which he had hoped, but under the circumstances, he was satisfied with his effort. “I crossed the finish line,” he said modestly. In truth, he was only eight seconds shy of matching his own school record of 19:23, which he had set earlier in the season.
Ben felt well enough immediately after the race but soon began to experience severe discomfort. He remembers thinking, “Man, I feel something in my left side that I’ve never felt before.” As his parents tried to help him cool down and calm his breathing, Ben’s pain continued to increase. “I told mom and dad, ‘It feels like there’s a weight on my chest, and I cannot get it off and it will not go away,’” he said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
The decision was made to call 911, and an ambulance soon arrived. Medics first ruled out a heart attack while trying to reassure Ben’s near frantic mother, Shannon. “They kept saying, ‘Momma, calm down. We really feel that this is a pneumothorax,’” she said. “We had never even heard of it.” The 6-foot 2-inch, 145-pound runner was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where the diagnosis was confirmed. The Clements family learned that a pneumothorax is a collapsed lung and that Ben had suffered what is termed a “primary spontaneous pneumothorax,” meaning that it can happen at any time and for no apparent reason. Body-type appears to be the only common denominator among those with the rare malady.
“My son has had a joy in his heart for Jesus since he was a little boy. He has always walked on the balls of his feet with a smile on his face.”Shannon Clements
“They told us, ‘Tall, skinny, athletic males is the stereotype of this condition,’” Ben said.
Once more, Ben was transported via ambulance, this time to Children’s Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. The attending physician hoped that by administering oxygen continuously for 24 hours the lung would re-inflate. It did not. X-rays revealed a lung that was now completely collapsed. The next step would be to insert a tube into the chest cavity and mechanically “suck out” the air—a procedure that would, hopefully, release pressure on the lung and allow it to re-inflate. “I had no plans of getting surgery,” Ben said. “I had no idea this is what God had planned for me.” Though he was not expecting such a crisis in his young life, Ben’s faith in God had nonetheless prepared him for it.
“My son has had a joy in his heart for Jesus since he was a little boy,” Shannon said. “He has always walked on the balls of his feet with a smile on his face.” She spoke admiringly of his love for people and a mature walk in Christ that belies his years. As Ben faced surgery, he knew having the right mindset was crucial. “I just had to accept that it’s going to be OK,” he said, “because this is what God wants for me.”
Twenty-four hours after the procedure to remove the air from his chest cavity began, a subsequent X-ray brought more discouraging news. “The next morning, they came in and said it didn’t inflate like they wanted,” Ben said. The following day, he underwent a second surgery to close air-leaking “blebs,” or “holes,” in his lung. A small portion of lung tissue damaged by the collapse was also removed. When that operation also proved unsuccessful, Ben wondered, “What’s going to happen now?”
Thomas and Shannon Clements had made the decision long ago to raise their two sons, Will and Ben, “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Homeschooling, with Bible study as part of the curriculum, has furthered that mission while allowing them more time with each other and more time to work together in their family-owned business: C&C Pecan Farm in Rutledge. Beyond their own family, the Clementses have been vitally connected, for more than 10 years, to the community
of faith at Crossroads Baptist Church in Social Circle.
The night before a third more invasive surgery was to be performed on Ben, the people of CBC mobilized to pray for him. The next morning, his lung was inflated and in place. “Everything just changed overnight,” Ben said. “It wasn’t just luck or ‘Oh, the surgery finally worked.’ No, that was God right there. God answered those prayers.”
“That was the first time,” Shannon said with a sigh.
A month after being released from the hospital, Ben passed his re-check exam and was given the green light to gradually resume normal activities, including running. A couple of months passed and he was, in his words, “going strong and getting ready for the track season.” Then, on Jan. 16, it happened again. What he thought at first was a muscle strain turned out to be another spontaneous pneumothorax. Nevertheless, Ben refused to think of himself as a victim of bad luck. “I just have to know that all of this is happening to me for a reason,” he said, “because God has a plan for me.” As Ben faced yet another hospitalization and surgery, he had one request: “Lord, please just get me through this.” Once again, the Clements family enlisted the prayer support of their church, and this time, the lung quickly responded as hoped.
Exactly one month later, Ben was back at practice—a welcomed sight for coach and mentor Roy Howard. “He’s always asking how he can make himself better,” Howard said. Ben’s drive for excellence has certainly paid off. In just four cross-country races last fall, he broke the previous school record three times. He also holds the record for both the 1600 and 3200 meters in track and field. Ben hopes to run in college but remains content to follow whatever course God has marked out for him. The suffering he has experienced has helped to ensure his priorities are in order.
“The first time it happened, I was itching to get back into running; the second time, it was God roping me in,” he said. “I love running so much, but that can’t come before loving the Lord and my time with Him.”
Just two days after he returned to practice, Ben was on his way back to the hospital with his third pneumothorax. Surgeons performed a pleurodesis, a procedure to prevent air build-up by attaching the lung to the chest cavity wall. The recovery will be longer this time, and though the prognosis is good, the future remains uncertain. Does he think he will run again? “Yes,” he said with a measured confidence. If not? “All I can say is, ‘God’s got a plan.’ I’ve got to be OK with whatever comes now.”
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