When Hunter was in the running for Polk County Prep Player of the Week last fall, all the excitement was about his performance as the kicker for the Lake Region Thunder in a game against division opponent Haines City Hornets. He kicked three field goals—including the game winner with less than seven seconds on the clock.
“I got carried off the field,” Hunter beams. “Oh my gosh! It was amazing!”
It’s a feat that’s all the more amazing when one considers how far Hunter has come in his 17 years of life.
Hunter was born with a potentially lethal heart defect.
At just one month old, he became the very first patient to receive a heart transplant at All Children’s Hospital. His story made local headlines in June of 1995. Cameras followed him for the first few months of life, culminating with his Winter Haven homecoming in July of that year.
Telethon viewers have watched Hunter grow throughout the years, and heard the pride and gratitude in dad Jeff ’s voice. “To look at him and see the kind of stuff he does everyday—how he plays, aggravates his sisters and fights with his buddy next door—you’d never even think he’d ever been sick.”
Like Hunter, All Children’s Pediatric Heart Transplant Program has grown to demonstrate tremendous success. More than 130 youngsters have followed in Hunter’s footsteps, receiving a second chance at life through a program that currently boasts 100% survival at the one-year post-transplant mark.
Heart Program Director James Quintessenza, M.D., was one of the transplant surgeons holding Hunter’s new life in his hands on that day in June of 1995. But he credits Hunter’s survival—and the program’s growth—to much more than operating room skill.
“It’s not about the surgeon or the medical doctors. It’s really about a very collaborative team effort,” Quintessenza notes. “And to make it all work requires the integration of all those team members working at a very high level.”
The All Children’s team now has a comprehensive Heart Center with its own surgical suites, catheterization labs and cardiovascular intensive care unit to care for children with all manner of heart disorders. Built with a generous donation from Tom and Mary James in whose honor it has been named, the Heart Center continues its lifesaving work in part through Telethon donations.
The Thunder at Lake Region High School can count on Hunter’s participation this fall as he enters his senior year. He’s hoping to find a future in one of the sports he’s come to love—be it football, soccer or tennis.
But regardless of what his future holds, Hunter appreciates how far he’s come.
“I’m blessed to be here,” he says humbly. “And I love All Children’s Hospital!”
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