Stitched together

Families altered, intertwined after life-saving surgery

At 1 p.m., Brian Smothers opens his eyes. He’s groggy, confused and in pain. He’s in a surgical recovery room but isn’t sure why.

Before he falls back to sleep, a nurse asks him to rate his pain.

“I am going to say a 10,” he replies. “But I’ve never been in this much pain before, so I don’t really know if this is a 10, but I think this time it is.”

He says later that he has no memory of this conversation.

An hour later, he opens his eyes again, and this time, less confused, he sees a sight that makes him smile.

Amber Atwood holds Smothers’ daughter, Emory, in her arms. The toddler has been asking for him all day and is delighted to finally see her daddy.

“I remember looking up, and I could see Emory floating above me,” he said. “That’s when I knew I had made it through. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to die.”

As Smothers recognizes his little girl, his smile widens. His partner, Stephanie Olson, begins to cry. His parents, Brad and Penny, hug each other. Atwood squeezes the little girl, and Emory giggles.

“Did it work?” Smothers asks. In tears, Atwood quietly responds. “Yes, Brian. He’s making his own urine.” “What does that mean?” With a sigh, Atwood lowers Emory to her daddy’s face as she responds. “The surgery worked, Brian. The kidney is working in Hunter.” Smothers doesn’t say a word but instead begins to laugh. He gasps when pain radiates through his belly, and tears roll down his face as he falls back asleep. But he never stops smiling.

. . .

Amber Atwood’s newborn son was missing. Just 10 hours after giving birth, the new mother was in Little Rock and demanding to see her child, but he was nowhere to be found. The little boy was born a week overdue at Northwest Medical Center in Springdale after a short labor. Two months earlier, his mother was given the news her son was ill — so sick, in fact, she would need to deliver him immediately. The newlywed disagreed. Fearing a preterm birth would be catastrophic to her unborn son, Atwood and her husband, Greg Phifer, made the difficult decision to carry him to term, hoping he could grow just large enough to survive. Hunter Phifer was born naturally in August of 1995, and at just over 8 pounds, doctors were surprised to see how healthy the child looked. “I wanted to film the birth, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it,” Atwood said. “They said we could film labor until he was actually coming out but then nothing. They didn’t know what he would look like when he was born, so they didn’t want us to see it if it was really bad.” Atwood was able to briefly hold her son before he was airlifted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital for emergency treatment. She was told to remain in Springdale to recover.

She didn’t.

Threatening to take her own IV out and walk out the door, Atwood demanded to follow Hunter to Little Rock. After watching her child’s helicopter take off from the hospital’s sidewalk, she made the difficult and painful trip south.

“I had stitches, and that was when the only way to get down there was the Pig Trail,” Atwood said. “It was not a fun trip.”

Once there, nurses and staff spent what seemed like hours looking for her child. He had been placed in a neonatal dialysis machine and was “hidden away in a corner of the intensive care unit,” she said.

A month later, Atwood and Phifer took their son home, but it wasn’t an easy homecoming, and they would be forced to return time and time again to Little Rock for life-saving treatment.

“A new parent is never fully prepared to have a child, I think,” said Atwood. “And certainly, we weren’t totally ready to have a sick kid.”

Hunter was equipped with a feeding tube, dialysis port and burp button. Most of the job of caring for the newborn rested on Atwood.

She took it in stride and has continued to do so for the last 19 years.

“She’s basically always been there for me,” Hunter Phifer said. “She’s the one that has always been my rock. She’s worried about everything so I didn’t have to. It made it easier for me, even though I was the one going through it. She’s just awesome.”

Stephanie Olson didn’t want her daughter to know anything was wrong, so she tried to make their day as normal as possible. They may have been in in a hospital waiting room, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have fun.

The toddler doesn’t really understand how “Daddy got an owie,” she just knows it happened the day she got to eat yogurt-dipped cheese puffs and dance with her grownup friends.

Unlike her mother, Emory wasn’t particularly concerned about anything that day, except maybe a few times when she asked, “Where’s Daddy?”

She had seen him that morning. She didn’t understand why he was lying in a strange bed, or why she couldn’t climb in with him.

She didn’t know her daddy was about to save someone’s life.

Olson held her daughter as they said goodbye to Brian Smothers in the pre-op wing of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, 2015. She put on a brave, tearless face, not letting on how scared she really was.

She was used to that stoic determination, she said.

In early August 2014, Smothers told his partner that he wanted to donate a kidney to Rogers teen Hunter Phifer. He was the son of their babysitter and had been sick all his life, he explained. He was a good kid and deserved a shot at a better life.

According to Smothers, Olson didn’t even flinch.

“Her only worries seemed to be for my health and a little financially, but other than that, she was behind me from the start,” he said.

Olson made the appointment for the initial blood test in Little Rock and looked after their daughter as Smothers underwent test after test to determine his compatibility. She was on hand the night Smothers announced to a shocked Amber Atwood that her son had a donor.

“I don’t know that I could have supported my husband if he said he wanted to donate an organ to someone we didn’t really know,” Atwood said. “But she said it was God’s will. It still blows me away.”

Her goal, Olson said, was to support the man she loves. And it was this support, he says, that made it all possible.

“I couldn’t have done this without her — without her love, support or even logistically,” Brian Smothers says. “I needed her there just simply to take care of Emory. But beyond that, she was there for me every step of the way. Even now, she gets on me to drink more water an makes sure I am taking care of myself. She’s why I could do this.”

Hunter Phifer’s recovery wasn’t easy from the beginning.

“They warned us that he would wake up agitated,” Amber Atwood said. “He woke up demanding and upset and, honestly, just mean.”

Like Smothers, he said he doesn’t remember waking up. But unlike his donor, Phifer was not a peaceful patient.

The pain from a larger-than-expected kidney caused the teen to need more medications, his mother said, and finding one that helped proved difficult.

If the pain from the surgical incisions wasn’t enough, Phifer was enduring a PICC line, a 12-inch needle in his neck which served as a pathway for medications, and if needed, life-saving intervention. The teen also had a catheter, an IV and was constantly thirsty.

His frustrations were nearly contagious, his mother said, but a friendly face quickly forced Phifer out of his slump.

The day after surgery, Brian Smothers appeared in Phifer’s doorway. The two men, encouraging each other, walked hand-in-hand through the hospital’s corridors. It was a routine they would keep up until both were discharged.

“He just kept pushing me,” Hunter recalled. “Whenever I felt down or that I couldn’t do it, Brian was there to get me moving.”

But it wasn’t just Smothers who motivated Phifer. By his side were two men who didn’t always see eye to eye before the surgery.

Hunter’s father, Greg Phifer, and stepfather, Tim Atwood, remained at the teen’s side throughout recovery, taking turns helping him eat, dress and even go to the restroom.

“This hasn’t just brought Brian’s and our families together, but just Hunter’s family is so much closer now,” Atwood said. “This entire process has been a miracle for us. Just a miracle.”

Stephanie Olson said that waiting for word on Brian was the worst half hour of her life.

Just after 1 p.m. on Jan. 21, the pager she was issued that morning buzzes. Hesitant, she, alongside Penny and Brad Smothers, enter a small waiting room to speak with the surgical team privately.

Atwood holds a squirming Emory in her arms while they wait.

“The surgery had run longer than we expected, so we were really scared to sit there and not know what was going on,” Olson recalled. “But then the doctor came in all smiles.”

Smothers’ family emerges from the consultation room jubilant. “He’s fine, he made it fine,” Olson gushes to Hunter Phifer’s anxious family. “They say it was a big kidney so his scar is going to be bigger than they thought.”

Three hours later, Atwood, along with her husband Tim, and Greg and Angela Phifer, are summoned to the same waiting room.

They are terrified but eager to learn if the surgery was a success. They too wait what seems like an eternity, but the smiling face of the surgeon immediately puts them at ease.

The teen is out of surgery and equipped with a new, healthy kidney.

Amber Atwood rushes to hug Olson, and the pair cry in each other’s arms.

“I can’t believe it worked,” Atwood says. “Thank you.”

Six weeks after transplant surgery, Hunter Phifer has become the young man his mother always hoped he could be. Healthy for the first time, he finally knows what normal feels like.

The same can be said for his donor, Brian Smothers, who beams with pride and a great appreciation for what God has given him and his family.

He says losing a kidney isn’t a large sacrifice, even if he has had to cut back on his favorite foods as a result.

Neither Smothers nor Phifer looks like he has been through a major surgery. The only indication that either has been unwell are the suture scars on their bellies and ever-present water bottles in their hands.

Emory is no longer waiting impatiently to be held by her father. Although she learned “Daddy’s owie is hurting” sometimes when he picks her up, he’s never slowed down long enough for it to affect her much.

After discharge, Smothers went to his parents’ home in Glenwood to recover, while his partner, Stephanie, went back to Springdale alone.

He returned to Northwest Arkansas on Jan. 30, and soon after began driving and taking care of Emory on his own, his mother, Penny, said.

He returned to work at Houlihan’s restaurant in Rogers on Monday.

The young father doesn’t know what the future holds for him, but he is optimistic. He says the surgery has given him a new purpose in life. He says he lives healthier now and hopes his daughter can learn from his donation.

“I don’t know what I would do if she came up to me one day and said she wanted to do this, though,” he says with a laugh. “I would have to support her, though. Who knows if someone she loves would need a kidney someday.”

Phifer’s future is a bit uncertain, too.

The animal science major recently learned he would have to forego his plans to become a veterinarian. The daily anti-rejection drugs make working with animals impossible, he says. The possibility of infection is too high for someone with a compromised immune system.

But despite the letdown, he’s found a new passion.

While bored and waiting to come home to Rogers, the teen began cooking in the small hotel room he called home during his time in Little Rock. Focusing his talents on low-sodium, low-fat foods, the teen has discovered he’s quite the chef and expects to start a culinary program this summer.

This isn’t the end of Phifer’s health trouble, however. He’s facing yet another surgery soon to correct his flat feet and will require frequent blood tests to check his renal system the rest of his life.

It’s possible this kidney will still fail, and despite advances in medical science, donor kidneys don’t last forever. Someday he will be on the waiting list again.

But until that time, he’s ready to take this new kidney out for a spin. He’s ready to get back to college, date and stay out late.

“I can’t say I notice too much of a difference yet, but I do see that I’m not getting tired as quickly anymore,” Phifer said. “So, I don’t know what I plan to do now, other than get better and go back to school. And people have been giving me a lot of peanut butter, so there’s that to eat.”

Allison Carter can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAAllison.

“As we were going to see Brian, Amber said there are so many people that are called a hero because they go to war, but your dad is an even bigger hero. He saved Hunter’s life.”

Penny Smothers