Before the most recent Super Bowl, 10-year-old Hunter Paulin kicked off the biggest event on America’s sports calendar by running to midfield at the Superdome and handing the official game ball to the referee.
The scene brought tears to the eyes of Hunter’s mother, Wendy, who’d often wondered if Hunter’s fragile heart would ever let him run – or even let him live to see his 10th birthday.
“I had a range of extreme emotions, both cheering and tearing up,” Wendy said. “At the same time, we had several friends – ‘heart moms’ I’ve met over the years – who were texting me. To them, Hunter was representing their kids and all the others with CHD (congenital heart defects). It was amazing.”
On Nov. 12, 2003, when he was five days old, Hunter needed surgery to repair his damaged aorta. Doctors soon diagnosed him with Shone’s Complex, a rare congenital heart disease in which four or more defects affect the flow of blood into and out of the left ventricle.
Hunter actually had six defects. The most problematic was mitral valve stenosis, in which the faulty valve blocked blood flow into the left ventricle. Hunter was too small to have the valve replaced, so Dr. James Lock, a cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, inserted a tiny balloon and inflated it to force open the valve.
“The procedure, valvuloplasty, was very dangerous, with a high mortality rate,” Wendy said. “And there were just a handful of hospitals performing it back then.”
Hunter underwent several more valvuloplasties and an open-heart surgery. At eight months old, his damaged mitral valve was replaced with a mechanical version. A clot formed about a month and a half later, necessitating another surgery and another artificial valve.
By the time he was 8, Hunter had outgrown his replacement valve, so he underwent another operation – his fourth open-heart surgery and 12th procedure in all – to receive a bigger mechanical valve.
Hunter almost surely will outgrow his mitral valve again, and he also might need a new aortic valve.
“The more CHD patients grow, it gets a little easier because they have more options for better, longer-lasting solutions,” Wendy said. “That being said, it’s never really over. There’s no cure. He’s on a blood thinner, Coumadin, so he can’t participate in contact sports. We have to remind him of that a lot.”
That restriction limits Hunter’s sporting endeavors … but it hasn’t stopped him.
“I like golf, tennis, volleyball, badminton,” he said. “I like riding my bike, swimming and playing two-hand touch football with my brother, Brandon.”
Hunter wrote about how he stays active, eats healthy and inspires others to do the same as part of the NFL PLAY 60 Super Kid competition that led to his Super Bowl assignment. The NFL PLAY 60 Challenge – a partnership of the NFL and the American Heart Association – inspires kids to get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day in school and at home.
Said Wendy: “It was a Friday, so we had to wait until Monday to verify it was real. Thank goodness, we didn’t just delete it!”
The Super Bowl appearance launched a whirlwind 2013 for Hunter.
In April, he and the rest of “Team Hunter” participated in a 5k run, raising about $1,200 for INOVA Fairfax Hospital for Children. In May, he served as student ambassador at the annual meeting of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. In July, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Southern Maryland Blue Crabs game as part of the American Heart Association’s “Heart Night” at the ballpark.
Yes, with his heart health improving week by week, month by month and year by year, Hunter Paulin has shifted into overdrive. And he is quick to offer advice to “little kids” with CHD:
“When you have heart problems, try to get over the barriers in your way,” he said. “Because you really need to be active.”
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Photos by Roxana Hoveyda of the American Heart Association