Ponte Vedra teen receives a new heart

‘Heart for Hunter’ fundraising events July 10-11 to support teen’s recuperation, transplant medications


Ponte Vedra residents may already be familiar with Hunter Crain, the local teen whose battle with an underdeveloped left ventricle launched the “Heart for Hunter” campaign to help him receive a life-saving organ transplant.

Last week, the call the Crain family had been waiting for finally came. On June 7 at 5:35 a.m., the family received news that a heart was available. After receiving the call, Hunter, 19, and his mother Nancy rushed to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville for the surgery, which was conducted by Dr. Mark Bleiweis, MD, director and surgeon of the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.

Less than 24 hours later, Hunter was able to sit upright and offer a “thumbs up” to his family.

“We are just so excited and happy for him that this time has come,” Nancy Crain said. “There’s still a ways to go, but we’re so thankful.”

While Hunter has done well following his surgery, she said, the family has their sights set on overcoming the hurdles that lay ahead as Hunter’s new heart “takes hold in its new home.” After starting anti-rejection medications June 9, Hunter will need to continue taking them every day. He is expected to remain in UF Health Shands Hospital for at least two to four weeks to recover; following his discharge, he’ll need to take extra care to stay isolated for no less than a month to minimize the risk of infection and illness to which the medications make him more susceptible.

He will also need to have frequent checkups with his heart transplant team and undergo monthly cardiac catheterizations for approximately one year to rule out rejection of his new heart. But despite the various additions to Hunter’s routine, the Crain family is committed to heeding the advice of his nurses and doctors so he can get back to his own plans for the future.

“Hunter is feeling grateful, and is highly motivated to take care of this heart and do whatever the doctors and nurses ask of him so that he can get out of the hospital and go home,” Nancy said.

Community support

After having life-saving, reparative surgeries to his heart at just 15 days old, followed by two additional heart surgeries before his second birthday, Hunter spent his adolescent years in the typical fashion of a teenage boy. An interest in sports would translate into dreams of becoming a general manager for an NFL team, and the former Ponte Vedra High School student had his sights set on college.

But in the spring of 2013, after being invited to the Tim Tebow Foundation Celebrity Golf Classic, Nancy Crain realized something was wrong when her son was unable to walk long distances between the holes. Having been diagnosed as a child with variant hypoplastic left heart syndrome, doctors determined that Hunter had a severely dilated right atrium – a complication of his earlier surgeries – and was in need of a transplant. He was added to the list that November.

It wasn’t long before the community rallied to his support, launching the “Heart for Hunter” campaign. “Flat Hunter” paper dolls “in search of a heart” made appearances in the hands of everyone from NFL stars to soldiers in Afghanistan. The Crain family, meanwhile, worked tirelessly with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) to organize and guide communities in raising funds for Hunter’s transplant-related expenses.

In particular, Nancy Crain said, Ponte Vedra High School was instrumental in drumming up support for her son, from hosting “Heart for Hunter” nights to facilitating COTA Cares – a fundraising program run by Hunter’s sister and baseball team manager Courtney Crain.

“We know our course has just changed paths and we have miles to go before we rest, but I just can’t thank you enough,” Nancy Crain said to Hunter’s supporters. “Please continue your prayers for an unremarkable (recuperation) free of rejection, infection, clots or other complications.”

Hunter’s journey is set to return him to Ponte Vedra High School this fall, where he will act as an assistant football coach alongside Coach Matt Toblin.

In addition, the Crain family still plans to proceed with previously scheduled COTA fundraising events next month. The Heart for Hunter Pairings Party scheduled for July 10, and the second annual COTA Heart for Hunter Golf Classic and Heart for Hunter Golf Classic Ball Drop scheduled for July 11 will continue as planned to raise money needed for transplant-related care. The events will take place at the Atlantic Beach Country Club. The Crain family encourages local businesses and community members to reach out and get involved with the fundraising events.

Local businesses interested in sponsoring the golf tournament can contact Bill Rodish at (904) 400-2490. Those interested in helping the family can contact Jeanie Leapley at (904) 673-3346.

For more information about upcoming events or to track Hunter’s progress with his new heart, visit www.cotaforhunterc.com and www.facebook.com/HeartForHunter.