Nevada Union senior Hunter Vallejo donates to the hospital that saved his life as a baby
How to help
For more information or to donate, visit the Sutter Health Child Life Program at www.sutterhealth.org/services/pediatric/child-life and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation at www.stbaldricks.org.
The youngest of four rambunctious boys, Hunter Vallejo was a healthy newborn.
But when he reached six and a half months, his parents started to notice something wasn’t right. He seemed to have a new look in his eyes and could no longer sit up without toppling over. When a local physician referred him to Sutter Children’s Center in Sacramento, Hunter was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.
Doctors inserted a shunt — a tube designed to drain the extra fluid from the brain and relieve pressure. Yet, while the diagnosis was accurate, Hunter was still not feeling better. In fact, he got worse and began throwing up as much as 25 times a day.
“Then he just went lifeless,” said his mother, Kelly. “The doctors quickly ordered an MRI.”
When the results came back Kelly and her husband, Rick, received news that no parent wants to hear. Hunter had a malignant brain tumor. By releasing the fluid in his brain, the tumor had been allowed to expand. Then the oncologist delivered even worse news — Hunter would probably not live longer than six months.
“I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach,” said Kelly. “It was devastating. I’d already lost my mother-in-law to a brain tumor at 42.”
Reeling from the news and juggling care for their other three boys — then 9, 7 and 5 — the Penn Valley couple did not immediately share the news with their kids. They were eager for multiple opinions, so they took Hunter to UCSF, St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital and the Stanford Medical Center. But they were so impressed by the treatment at Sutter that they ended up bringing him back.
“We loved the neurosurgeon at Sutter,” said Kelly. “And we were closer to home, so we could tag team going to the hospital.”
Hunter was put on steroids and given chemotherapy at 11 months, which shrunk the tumor, meaning doctors could operate. While the surgery was successful, he continued to struggle. At a year and a half he was put on heavy chemo and radiation, a tough decision for such a young child. He would be in and out of the hospital for the next three years, and battled two life-threatening infections.
But he never gave up.
“Hunter was tough — he’s always been a fighter,” said Kelly. “He would be so sick, then bounce back. He was born with the will to fight. He would do an Army crawl around the house, and when he got to his brothers, he would light up.”
Over the years, the bond among the brothers never waned. Today, Hunter is 18 years old and about to graduate from Nevada Union High School. While he wears a helmet during sports, he doesn’t shy away from letting people see the scars from the surgery that saved his life. While he still gets MRIs every year, his condition doesn’t seem to hold him back. He’ll be attending Sierra College in Rocklin in the fall to study kinesiology.
When it came time for Hunter to come up with a topic for his senior project, it was an easy decision. He ended up raising funds and donating a whopping $2,000 to Sutter Children’s Center’s Child Life program. While he has few memories himself of his time in the hospital, his family doesn’t neglect to tell him the details of this very important chapter.
“He said he wants children who are hospitalized to have a good experience while they are there and that hopefully the money he donated will help the Child Life Program provide for the families,” said Angela Borchert of Sutter Health. “This family is absolutely incredible — just the nicest people who are truly grateful that their son will be walking in graduation in June.”
Hunter also raised an additional $500 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit that devotes funds to help find cures for children with cancer. Having recently turned 18, he now dons a new tattoo on his forearm that reads, “Against all odds.” He may add an angel, he said, a symbol of the feeling that somebody has been watching over him all these years. But it’s clear that also watching over him are his devoted brothers, Cody and Zach, who are both firefighters, and Tanner, who now plays NFL football for the Buffalo Bills.
“This struggle has taught me to keep going and not listen to what people say and never give up,” said Hunter. “I want to give other families hope. Obviously I was given six months to live. My parents kept fighting and didn’t listen to that.”
The Child Life Program provides specially trained child life specialists who use their expertise in child development and family dynamics to support families during a hospital stay, surgery or a visit to the pediatric emergency department.
“Hunter is an amazing person — he’s been a joy to raise and he’s got a heart of gold,” said Kelly. “When he was a baby, our world changed overnight. I just hope his story can give families hope when their kids are diagnosed. I’m so proud of him for doing something that will help other children and their families.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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