On the evening 10-year-old Hunter Neelley received his diagnosis of bone cancer, the Neelley family had plans to go out for dinner and to see a movie. The family of four had known a phone call from the oncologist was imminent and was praying for the best.
When they received the news, the family, who has never been shy about exercising their faith, gathered in the living room of their home to pray. After a few minutes, Hunter said, “So, we're still going to dinner and the movie, right?”
“He didn't let us sit in our self-pity very long,” said his father, Scott Neelley.
This moment would be indicative of Hunter's attitude about himself and others throughout his four-year battle with the osteosarcoma that eventually ended his life in the early morning hours of Oct. 12.
He is remembered by family and friends for his faith and for putting others first. Whether joking with the nurses following a round of chemotherapy or letting the hospital staff off the hook for waking him in the middle of the night to check his vital signs or administer his medication, “it was always about the other guy, never about him,” his father said.
In the months following the diagnosis, Hunter underwent several rounds of chemotherapy along with a painful surgery to resect a portion of his femur with a cadaver bone. After a year and a half on crutches, the doctors declared him cancer-free in October 2011. With the exception of follow-up appointments, Hunter resumed the normal life of a 12-year-old, rejoining the basketball team, hunting with his father and older brother Zack, and pitching for his baseball team.
A year later, during a routine three-month checkup, doctors at Presbyterian St. Luke's discovered the cancer had spread to Hunter's lungs.
“Originally we knew the odds were 60-40,” Scott Neelley reflected, “And osteosarcoma likes blood and a lot of oxygen.”
Following a surgery to remove part of his lung, Hunter's first impulse after waking up from the anesthesia was to call his basketball team to wish them luck in an important game. He had no idea that that the surgery had run long and the game had been over for hours.
“He was selfless. His prayers were always for others,” his father said.
It was his optimism and positive attitude that drew nearly 1,000 people to Hunter's Hope Barn Dance last February despite a blizzard that dropped more than 7 inches of snow on Elizabeth and forced the shuttle-bus company to cancel.
“People came out with horse-drawn carriages and shuttled people from the parking lot,” Scott Neelley said.
The fundraiser, sponsored by Creekside Community Church, covered some of the family's medical bills and allowed the Neelleys to take a family trip to stay with friends in Hawaii. It was on the overnight flight home following a long day of deep-sea fishing, that Hunter turned to his father and said, “I'm done.”
“I was turning over every rock, looking for any treatment I could find.” Scott Neelley said. “I had been hanging on to Hunter, trying to spend every moment I could with him, just to get one more day, giving him as many experiences as possible.”
Hunter's doctors estimated that he had two months to live once they removed the peripheral line that deliver his chemotherapy. Hunter's family believes that it was his faith that gave him eight months longer than the doctors predicted.
“His faith came naturally,” his father said. “My wife's father is a preacher, but Hunter's faith was his own.”
At the end, it was Hunter's mother, Robin Neelley, who sat with him the night he faded in and out of consciousness and slipped away.
“She was his full-time caregiver,” Scott Neelley said with a tearful smile. “The staff at St. Luke's referred to her as a mom-cologist.”
On Oct. 25, a memorial was held for Hunter at Elizabeth High School; so many people attended the event that the Elizabeth Fire Department granted a temporary waiver to allow the high school's gym to exceed its legal capacity.