This archived article was written by: Morgan Verdi
Would you have the courage to live your life to the fullest if every odd was stacked against you? Hunter Free, a student at USU Eastern, has done just that.
At 3, Free was diagnosed with NF1 (Neurofibromatosis type 1) a genetic gene mutation that causes thousands of problems including: deformities in the body, and tumors that grow sporadically.
In Free’s case, the tumors embedded into his bones, resulting in multiple surgeries. Doctors told Free he wouldn’t live past 14. Shortly after his diagnosis he had his first surgery. By sixth grade, he had already had over 12 surgeries, one of which was putting a titanium rod in his broken femur when he was only 12.
“My left side is most affected from the tumors and, in turn, is the weakest,” Free says. “So I generally do things with my right side, including getting out of the car. But on this occasion, which happened to be Easter Sunday, I stepped out of the car with my left side first. The next thing I knew, my leg hurt. My mom thought I was lying to get out of carrying a tray of food in for family dinner.
Three weeks later, my doctor returned from his humanitarian project in Africa and my mother and I went in to see why my leg was still hurting. Turns out I had a broken femur and was in surgery the next morning.”
From then on, Free had what he calls “minor surgeries,” but at 16, his spine was at a 90-degree curve and deteriorating causing it to collapse.
“Doctors were not hopeful. The risks of being paralyzed or even dying were high, but I tried not to think much about it. Having all these surgeries never upset me, it was a part of life. The thing that bugged me is I watched all the kids my age dating and I never had that opportunity. Besides my family I didn’t have someone there for me like a girlfriend.
Between all my surgeries, I never got to be like the other kids. I couldn’t go outside and play sports, or ride bikes. I was different in so many ways, and that was hard.” The surgery was an interior posterior spinal fusion. All in all it took 24 hours, 14 hours through Frees’ back, and a week later he was back in the surgery room for another 10 hours through the front of his body.
Free says, “They did a full spinal fusion. The bones in my back and the titanium are all fused together, but it feels way better now than it did before.” After his spinal surgery, many more surgeries followed, including one he had just over a year ago.
“I had a tumor in my leg. It had grown to the size of a rotisserie chicken by the time they got it out. Doctors were afraid that the tumor had turned cancerous, and they had radiation sessions already set up for me.
Fortunately the tumor was benign (harmless)”. Free has been through hell and back, he is now 21 and has undergone 26 surgeries, yet his positive outlook on life shows how much he’s learned along the way “I’ve never let life stop me.
“I’ve had a job since I was 14, and I wrote my own book titled ‘Life Takes Courage.’ I started my own business when I was 16. I’ve had five different jobs, I’ve always tried to stay busy. I’ve never let my problems discourage me. In fact I see my problems as strengths not weaknesses. Now I’m attending my first year of college, working on getting my Ph.D. in psychology. I haven’t and won’t let anything stop me, so what’s stopping you?” Life takes courage.