'The best bloke' is how Hawke's Bay's Napier Tech rugby club president Jamie Bryant describes a promising young player, as the community rallies to fund emergency treatment for cancer, caused by a rare genetic condition.
Twenty-year-old Hunter Donghi went out for a burger just days before Christmas and ended up in hospital with what he thought was food poisoning; it turned out to be stage 4 liver cancer.
"I just said, 'Get in the car, there's something wrong'. He’d gone jaundiced and his eyes were going yellow," Hunter’s mother Kylee Bryan-Martin recalls.
Kylee says the diagnosis was a cruel déja vu. Hunter is one of four boys including twin Boston, their father died of undetected cancer that had metastasized to the liver at just 35; the family had been warned the boys were at increased risk but not at 20.
"All along, we were told the boys all needed to be screened at 25, so I'm like, 'Yep, my oldest is 24 so he's coming up for his first screen'. Not at 20".
The timeline’s been expedited after doctors discovered a link to Lynch syndrome, a gene that significantly increases the risk the other boys get cancer too. As the whānau care for Hunter, twin Boston and brothers Jordan and Logan are awaiting their own blood tests to see if they’re also susceptible to the cancer. The results will take weeks.
The news hit Napier Tech hard. Hunter is known as a team player. He’d barely taken his boots off since he was a kid, even representing Napier in the Ross Shield as far back as 2014.
"He is one of the most loyal and hardworking guys. He’s so humble, pure work ethic, getting to training, getting behind the boys who are down, or lagging behind, Bryant says. "He’ll finish what he does and get to the back of the pack and pick up the guys that are struggling."
Napier Tech was a homecoming of sorts for Hunter. His late father’s best friend coaches him at the club where the no.7 "dominates his position" and where Bryant says he was on track to play premier. He says no one can imagine the team without him.
"You’re with the boys for six or seven months of the year. The season finishes and everyone goes on their merry way and you'd expect to see them all back four or five months later for pre-season. To hear this news, it’s devastating."
No Pharmac Funding
One in five people will survive stage 4 liver cancer past 12 months but doctors say the fact Hunter’s so fit and otherwise healthy his prognosis is better and he may have a lifeline thanks to an antibody drug called Keytruda.
Hunter is feeling okay and, were he in Australia where cancer survival rates outstrip New Zealand's, Keytruda would be funded but Kylee says Pharmac, the government's drug-buying agency won’t cover it.
"They’re offering palliative chemotherapy. But all that's gonna do is literally wipe him out. It will make him very, very sick whereas this is an immunotherapy drug. That's gonna bring his immune system up instead of doing the opposite where chemotherapy smashes it".
While Keytruda is a life-preserving drug, Bryant-Martin says Hunter’s doctors said there’s always a chance of a miracle.
"She said stranger things have happened. The glimmer of hope is if we can shrink the tumour, for them to do surgery on that, it could happen. She said it's a long shot. But you know, there is a glimmer of hope and that's what we need to hold on to."
Hope’s good enough for Hunter’s teammates and colleagues at Fulton Hogan where he won an Apprentice of the Year award in December. They want to raise the $75,000 needed for the drug themselves, unveiling a series of golf tournaments, and charity auction quiz nights at the club, complete with hāngi, starting next Saturday.
“We’ve got a job to do for Hunter and it’s important to get the team together for the guys that are close to Hunter. In my eyes, doing this for Hunter brings us all closer,” Bryant says.
What they’re doing for him, he’d do for any one of them, Bryant says.
“He’d do anything for anyone, you know? He’s one of the best guys, one of the best young men I know.”
A GiveALittle campaign set up by friends of the whānau has so far raised $27,000; his mother Bryant-Martin knows they’re in a race against the clock, Doctors say his tumour has grown by more than a centimetre in just a week.
“We can't lose him. He’s just everything to me, they all are. They’re my boys”
Go here to donate to Hunter's treatment.
Charity auction and quiz night
A quiz night with food and entertainment followed by the auction will take place at 4pm on Saturday, January 15 at the Tech club rooms.
Details can be found on the club's Facebook page.