Hunter’s Hope — Commentary

“Isn’t he just full of it?” Amber Atwood asks with a laugh. “He thinks he knows everything.”

“I do not. I’m just right, and that’s just the way it is,” her son, Hunter Phifer, snarks with a grin.

It’s been six weeks since Hunter received a new kidney, and he is certainly feeling better.

It’s a Thursday night, and mother and son are sitting at the kitchen table eating homemade pizza and undergoing yet another interview. Hunter’s gotten used to them, he says, but still feels a little nervous talking to me.

Until just recently, Amber didn’t think a night like this could happen. Hunter’s been sick since before he was born. As a little kid, she says, he learned quickly to avoid certain foods. He says that he knew how to recognize sodium content before he ever knew what it really meant.

Hunter just knew he couldn’t eat pizza like the other kids. Or chips or burgers. Or his beloved peanut butter. And it’s apparent in this laid-back, finally normal evening that this has changed.

A year ago, none of us could have guessed we’d be sitting here.

I first met Hunter in January of 2014. He was a sickly senior in high school who didn’t look long for this world. He was thin. His skin was yellow. I felt like I was meeting a ghost.

Amber did most of the talking during that first interview. Hunter had never been interviewed before and was shy. But more than that, he was too sick to talk much.

At that same time, Brian Smothers and his partner Stephanie Olson were making a life-changing decision.

The new parents were debating a risky move to Northwest Arkansas. They wanted to make a new start and hoped to get jobs that would give their daughter, Emory, a better life.

Both families were hopeful that 2014 would be the year their dreams could come true. Amber hoped her son would start dialysis and get the chance to be a normal teenager. Brian hoped to start college again. Stephanie hoped her daughter would finally have financial security.

“I certainly didn’t expect to give a kidney when we moved here last year,” Brian says.

But he did. On Jan. 21, Hunter’s life was forever improved by Brian’s donation. Healthy for the first time, Hunter is finally tasting what normal feels like.

The same cannot be said for Brian, who with one less kidney has had to cut back on pizza. Despite this diet change, the 25-year-old says he would do it again if he could.

I’ve spent a year following Hunter. I’ve watched him start dialysis, graduate high school and begin college. I felt the hopeful, yet apprehensive, joy of learning he had a donor and the heartbreak when the surgery was postponed.

But as far as these stories are concerned, the surgeries are just a framework. They’re not about the transplant at all.

This is a story about a family that spent 19 years waiting for Hunter to wake up that afternoon.

It’s a story about a little girl who ate raisins and danced in the waiting room while her father underwent a life-changing surgery.

It’s about Stephanie, who kept it together, supported Brian and made it possible for him to do this.

It’s about Penny, a mom who was terrified to lose her son but ultimately stood by his side.

It’s a story about hope — the anticipation that good things are coming and that one’s current misfortunes will be lifted. It’s about the prayer and the pleading that often goes unanswered in this life.

It’s about believing in the face of unbearable odds.

A year ago, none of us could have seen where this story was going to go, but we hoped it would end like this.

Hunter Phifer has a new kidney. It’s the end of this series and the final line of my story.

But it is only the beginning of his.

Allison Carter can be reached by email at acarter@nwadg.com or at nwaallison on Twitter.


 

Link to the article can be found here.

 

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