The Karate Kid - Karate helps 13-year-old recover from kidney failure

by Rebecca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs

11/21/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Round-house kicks, high blocks and a children's TV show inspired one young boy at the age of 4 to fight like his hero, the Red Ranger from the Fox Family's series "Power Rangers."

Stephen Hunter, now 13, learned more than just karate to earn his level one black belt Nov. 13 - he discovered his own inner strength.

Growing up in Montgomery with his mother, Lisa Hunter, Stephen is the grandson of a retired Air Force senior master sergeant. Toughness runs in the family, and they would soon find out, so did kidney disease.

In the summer of 2005 while Stephen was travelling across the country visiting family, going to a summer school program, attending tumbling class and learning karate, one of his kidneys was slowly shrinking. Suffering from hypertension and compounded with his other activities, he was drained, and it showed.

"It turns out though that he wasn't just tired, his kidney was not functioning as it should," his mother said. "When we first went in, his blood pressure was at stroke level, and we found out he had an atrophic kidney about half the size of the other, and we realized the kidney was shrinking. I thought that was great because if it shrinks to nothing, then it won't be a problem."

However, that was not the case, according to Stephen's physicians. Even if there is only one cell left, the body would still register it as an organ and would try to pump blood there. The fact that the blood could not reach the kidney due to a blockage is the reason why Stephen was hypertensive.

Surgery was the only option. Though the side of his body where his kidney was taken is weaker than the other, Stephen recovered quickly and was soon practicing karate kicks at home, said his mother.

"He had the surgery, it was a Monday, he went home on Wednesday and by Saturday he was terrorizing his cousin again," she said. "Kids are resilient."

Soon, Stephen was back at karate class working hard to catch up on what he had missed during recovery. Retired Master Sgt. David Farrell, who teaches Stephen at the Maxwell Event Center, was impressed with the youth's perseverance.

"First of all, I admire his desire. If you don't have a desire, you can't do anything," he said. "You have to want to do something. Second, I admire his perseverance. Despite the physical ordeal he went through, he still has that perseverance. He's still here."

"With those two ingredients," he continued, "he can go as far as he wants to go. That's what I admired, especially after knowing he had that medical procedure and he still had a desire to do it. That's remarkable. He taught me something about life, about how to be a better me."

Earning his black belt was more than just finishing a class. It represented those ingredients of perseverance and self-control and years of hard work, practice, sweat and sometimes tears, according to Stephen, alone with the loss of his kidney.

"Mostly, I figure it as an accomplishment to be here and able to make it through this," Stephen said.

To test for his black belt, Stephen was required to combine all the basic movements he had previously learned to earn his other 12 colored belts to create a fluid string of movements or forms simulating a fight. This is the culmination of the class, said Farrell.

"That's the reason we test, to see how well you apply what you know, what you spent a lot of years, sweat, tears and money on and how you apply it under pressure conditions," he said.

Stephen has many favorite movements he likes to use.

"I have a lot of favorites, but my most favorite is a 360 jump kick. You jump in the air and turn and do a 360 degree outside-inside kick," said Stephen. "I like how all the different movements can flow together with each other."

Farrell oversaw the test and called out instructions where Stephen would have to respond with a series of round house kicks, side kicks, spinning back kicks, low blocks, high blocks, middle blocks, inside-outside blocks and outside inside blocks.

Stephen also was tested on his performance in one-step sparing, breaking of the boards, fighting with his Filipino sticks, free fighting with other students in the class and, finally, fighting Farrell himself.

Stephen was definitely nervous. When asked how he was feeling before the test, Stephen responded simply, "Butterflies!"

Even his mother was nervous for him.

"I was little nervous, but I think that's just as a parent, you always want your child to do well and you want to absorb their nerves for them," she said. "But I always rely on Mr. Farrell. He has told me that if he [Stephen] is not ready, he's not going to have him test. Mr. Farrell's very confident, and that's enough for me."

Farrell's confidence was not misplaced, as Stephen earned high marks for his performance in earning his black belt and now has the chance to pass on what he knows to younger students.

"I use martial arts as my vehicle to make you a better person," said Farrell. "Not to make you fight, or have the ability to fight, although that will come. What I put into students through teaching martial arts, they can take with them through every aspect of their life. Qualities such as self-control and perseverance, don't give up because a little breeze comes."

Karate classes are held from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at the Maxwell Event Center. Call Farrell at 613-9864 or the center at 953-7370 to register.