Heart of a Champion

Former brain tumor patient named 2018 ambassador

In basketball terms, you could call Hunter Miller’s story as a Le Bonheur patient a slam dunk.

In 2011, at age five, Hunter suffered with a debilitating headache. At first, a trip to the urgent care near Hunter’s hometown of Saltillo, Miss., didn’t reveal any of the usual signs of a brain tumor. No blurred vision or dizziness, just pain.

“He told me if I didn’t get him to the hospital he was going to die – that his head hurt so badly,” said Suzanne, Hunter’s mom.

Out of caution, the physician scheduled a CT scan. The next day when the doctors showed Suzanne the scan, all she could focus on was the word “tumor.”

“I could hear them in the background talking about a Pedi-Flite [helicopter transfer] to Le Bonheur,” Suzanne remembers.  “Of course when you hear the word ‘tumor,’ you automatically assume the worst.”

The doctors advised Suzanne, and Hunter’s father, Adam, to take Hunter directly to Memphis, where a team would admit him to Le Bonheur and decide the next steps. Hunter had a Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma tumor, which is quite rare – it appears in 14 of 1 million children. The benign tumor is slow growing and can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, balance problems and vision abnormalities.

 

 

 

 

 

Surgery was scheduled two days later. Doctors told the Millers to be prepared for a long-road to recovery including speech, occupational and physical therapies after the surgery. Hunter surprised everyone. He needed just a few days of physical therapy to help him walk after surgery. Two weeks later, Hunter was back in school with a shaved head, an impressive scar, and a somewhat true story that thoroughly entertained his classmates.

“My teacher asked me if wanted to tell my story about my surgery, and I thought ‘sure,’ because I thought it was cool,” Hunter said. “I thought the surgeon pulled my brain out, and got the tumor off the brain and then put it [the brain] back in,” he laughs.

Now 13, Hunter has had eight years of clean scans at the joint surgical brain tumor program at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and his prognosis is excellent. He’s a dual sport athlete and a top-notch student, a curious boy who is fascinated by American history.

“When we go to a place, I wonder who found this place and how they did it. I like to know the background, and learning how America got to be how it is today, and how it is important not to repeat mistakes,” he said.

Hunter’s other Le Bonheur story is that as an advocate – and when it comes to his support of the hospital, it’s clear he’s in it for the long game. His work on behalf of the hospital led to Hunter’s selection as Le Bonheur’s 2018 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMNH) Champion – an honor bestowed on 170 children nationwide who have been treated at a CMNH-partner hospital.

“We thought something’s not right. We need a specialist to help us figure this out,” Kris said. “We made one phone call and within an hour, Le Bonheur was there.”

Pedi-Flite, Le Bonheur’s emergency transport service, arrived by ambulance to make the two-hour drive to Memphis. Le Bonheur is the only Level 1 pediatric trauma program in the Mid-South. This designation by the American College of Surgeons means Le Bonheur is prepared for even the most catastrophic traumatic injuries – from car accidents to sports injuries. Each year, more than 1,200 kids like Thomas are transferred to Le Bonheur for a higher level of care than their local hospitals could provide.

As a CMNH champion, Hunter is an ambassador for the hospital, attending fundraising and community events to thank donors for their gifts and bring patients and their families hope. He also helps grow the community’s awareness of Le Bonheur through public appearances.

This spring, Hunter’s engagements included the chance to interview Memphis Redbirds players on the field during a game and an interview with a player at Mississippi State University’s new baseball stadium – quite a treat for the young pitcher/catcher.

“When we went to Mississippi State – that was extraordinary. That was so fun, we got to go into the dugout and meet the players, and I have a signed hat from all the players.

They are just so supportive,” says Hunter.

The teen also had the chance to be a part of the 2018 Le Bon Appétit event, hanging out with Chef Steve McHugh of Cured, in whom he found a kindred spirit.

McHugh named his San Antonio, Texas, restaurant not only after the charcuterie he serves, but for his recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Along with his parents, Suzanne and Adam, and his 11-year-old brother, Carson, the Miller family is a superstar team of fundraisers, promoters and activists who believe in the mission of Le Bonheur as well as the power of giving back.

In 2011, the family jumped at the chance to be part of the Family Affair challenge, a friendly competition in which families compete to raise money for the hospital. Adam, now a minister at Mayfield Church of Christ in Saltillo, previously worked as an assistant manager at the Walmart in Tupelo, so had been aware of the hospital through the company’s charitable giving.

During the challenge, Adam and Hunter raised money together at the store, and the entire family put on bake sales, a garage sale and other fundraising events.

“We did a really big bake sale and Walmart employees played a big part,” Hunter said.

In all, the Millers raised more than $21,000 for the hospital and won the crown for that year’s Family Affair.

Connie Haygood, the Le Bonheur regional special events manager and CMNH coordinator for North Mississippi, says giving back is a family affair for the Millers.

“They are a family that just understands the importance of giving back to our hospital,” Connie said.

Following Hunter’s recovery, Suzanne joined the Gumtree TWIGS (Together We Initiate Growth and Sharing), an auxiliary group that supports the hospital through fundraising efforts in the Tupelo area.

“Hunter’s experience has taught us to be thankful every single day for the many people who helped us along the way. It has also made us want to always strive to give back as much as we can to the place that has given so much to us,” she said.

Haygood says in her 22 years of working for Le Bonheur in North Mississippi she’s met many generous families like the Millers.

“When a child from our area goes to Le Bonheur, there is usually a serious or complicated reason,” Haygood said. “When Hunter had surgery, the Millers saw how important the community’s support is to making Le Bonheur a great place for kids. Like many families, they felt indebted to Le Bonheur and want to give back to the hospital.”

Although just 13, Hunter is a powerful advocate, encouraging others that any gift is a gift well-given.

“Even $10 would help any kid,” he said.

College is still a few years off for this rising 8th-grader, but a career combining his love of sports and learning seems to be in the game plan for Hunter.

“I might be a physical therapist or a teacher. I want to work with kids,” he said.

While Hunter will spend just one year as Le Bonheur’s CMNH Champion, it’s clear he will always have a heart for the hospital and its patients.

“I would tell them to be brave,” Hunter said when asked what advice he would give to a young patient. “Le Bonheur is going to take great care of you.”

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