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A young transplant recipient takes on the world, one gold medal at a time

Hunter Messer, Liver Transplant Recipient, 1998

Hunter Messer, Liver Transplant Recipient smiles with medals on a track fieldAfter receiving a new liver at University Hospital as an infant, Hunter Messer has competed each year in the U.S. and World Transplant Games since age 8, and now is setting his sights on college.

Hunter Messer sinks into a chair at the kitchen table of his family’s home, smiling and exhausted. Minutes earlier, the 17-year-old senior at Johnson High School wrapped up an intense game of three-on-three basketball in which he scored 49 points.

“For the most part, I just live a normal life,” Hunter said. “And people can’t tell I had a transplant.”

While Hunter is normal teenager, his life has been anything but typical. Since undergoing a successful liver transplant at University Hospital at 11 months of age, he has traveled to such far-flung places as Thailand, Australia and Sweden, competing in the World Transplant Games and the Transplant Games of America — and racking up a pile of medals in the process.

Throughout all of that, Hunter and his family have been tireless advocates for organ donation.

“We told Hunter when he was younger and started competing that we’re doing this for him to participate in the Transplant Games, obviously,” his mother, Marcia Messer, said. “But we’re really doing it to spread awareness about organ donation. And throughout the years, so many people have told us that they’re organ donors just because they heard Hunter’s story.”

Hunter’s story began shortly after he was born, when he became jaundiced. At 2 months of age he was diagnosed with a rare and complex genetic disorder called Alagille syndrome, which can affect the liver, kidneys, heart, eyes and bones.

His parents flew the baby from San Antonio to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to consult with doctors familiar with such a rare disorder. One of the doctors they met with was Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who was completing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins.

By the time Hunter needed his transplant, Dr. Cigarroa had been recruited to the University of Texas Health Science Center to launch a pediatric liver transplant program, in a happy coincidence. Hunter was Dr. Cigarroa’s sixth young liver transplant patient in San Antonio.

“Hunter and his family are role models and an inspiration to our faculty and staff,” said Dr. Cigarroa, surgical director of pediatric transplants at University Transplant Center, and professor of medicine at the UT Health San Antonio. “Hunter demonstrates to all of us that overcoming a challenge, no matter how large, is within our capability. The Messers are great ambassadors to the University Transplant Center and to the need of organ donation — all focused on saving lives and improving the human condition.”

As Hunter grew, he developed a love of sports, particularly swimming, baseball and soccer. At age 8, he was asked to represent the U.S. in the World Transplant Games, taking place in Canada that year. He brought home four gold medals and one silver, competing among the younger kids in swimming, track and other events.

He’s had subsequent physical challenges to contend with. He’s lost vision in one eye and successfully battled a form of lymphoma. About four years ago, his kidneys began to deteriorate. He will eventually need a kidney transplant at University Hospital — a prospect he faces with a shrug.

“He has never, ever complained about any of it — not the tests, all the medicine,” his mother said. “When my dad had cancer, Hunter told him, ‘If I can fight through it and not complain about it, you can too.’ My dad was like, how do you argue with that?”

Today, Hunter’s passion is basketball, which is played in the U.S. games but not the world games. He also competes in track and bowling. He’s been a member of the Johnson High School basketball team. His career goal is to be a coach, and he hopes to major in athletics at Texas A&M University after high school and summer classes at Blinn College.

Unfortunately, his college plans mean he will miss his first World Transplant Games since age 8. He’s a little wistful at not being able to go to Argentina, where this year’s games will be held. But the transplant games include athletes of all ages, and Hunter plans to keep competing for many years to come.

And his advice to others?

“Never give up,” Hunter said. “You just can’t. Always have hope. Look at the positive.”