‘I worked as an EMS and was supposed to be the hero. Then it all came to a screeching halt’
When Darren Hunnicutt told his wife he had cancer she collapsed and he caught her in his arms.
He said the dread he saw in her eyes kept him strong in order to support her and all of his loved ones as he journeyed through a brutal succession of medical traumas that would have left many for dead.
In 2018, doctors discovered a tumour on his pituitary gland just weeks before they found cancerous tumours on his thyroid and in his chest.
He underwent intensive hormone replacement therapy, a thyroidectomy and a double mastectomy in the space of less than a year.
Mr Hunnicutt, who started his career working as an EMS before he qualified as a nurse, moved to Bermuda from Florida on American Thanksgiving Day in 2019 following his ordeal. He came to work for the Matilda Smith Williams Nursing Home in Devonshire which was ravaged by a Covid-19 outbreak.
He told The Royal Gazette: “I told my wife Susie I had cancer and I saw the look in her eyes, she buckled at the knees, I was holding her up while she was sobbing.
“I have seen emergency trauma and critical care, it is something that I have dealt with often. Then here it is with yourself and you are used to putting on this strong façade that nothing ever bothers you so I tried to keep my composure.
“Cancer sucks for the person but it sucks for everyone else involved as well. I needed to get through it because I have always been the stable go-to figure, be it in the family or with friends – I was someone who people always came to for help. I needed to get through it so I could continue to be there for them.”
As a fit 36-year-old who attended the gym regularly and did much of the heavy lifting at work, Mr Hunnicutt knew something was wrong when in early 2018 he began feeling “painfully tired”.
He visited his doctor who discovered drastic changes in his hormones. A tumour was found on his pituitary gland – a gland at the base of the brain responsible for producing hormones – explaining his lethargy.
He was referred to an endocrinologist who found a large mass buried in his throat. Biopsies revealed a cancerous tumour. As he was considering surgery options, no more than a month later, Mr Hunnicutt noticed further masses in his chest area. The next thing he knew he was being admitted to a women’s clinic for a mammogram – it was a rare case of male breast cancer.
Mr Hunnicut said: “They escorted me in through the back door so the female patients couldn’t see me because it’s not that common for men to be there.
“I underwent the surgery for the neck and the chest – after that there was a such a drastic change in my hormones. Being on replacement therapy and losing a thyroid and the things that help regulate your hormones … it was a long road, it wasn’t an easy thing to overcome.
“I worked as an EMS and was supposed to be the hero saving people – we are the invincible ones. Then it all came to a screeching halt.”
Mr Hunnicutt was on the operating table for about five hours to have the tumour removed from his neck. His surgeon, who he knew well as he worked with him at the UConn John Dempsey Hospital in Connecticut, US, joked that he was $100 more expensive after the surgery as he had used about 100 metal clips, each costing a dollar, to stem bleeding from blood vessels.
Mr Hunnicutt took a week of rest before he returned to work and about three months later he was back under the knife, again for several hours, for the double mastectomy.
He said: “It wasn’t a full radical where they remove all the muscle and tissue but it altered my appearance and I lost self confidence – it affected my self image.
“I felt I had taken a baseball bat or a cannon ball to the chest – it was this massive ache. Deep breaths were painful – if I had to cough or sneeze that would send pain running through my body.
“Then my weight started to balloon. I went from being a 185lb average, healthy guy – by the time I got to Bermuda, I ended up at 275lbs and was a totally different person. There were the psychological effects of that too, your body going through all these changes and it weighed heavy on me for a while.”
Mr Hunnicutt, who had also received treatment for post traumatic stress disorder for work-related incidents, managed to keep his sense of humour intact.
He said: “I can understand when a woman deals with menopause, I am hot all the time as a result of all the hormonal changes – I call it the ‘manopause’.”
Mr Hunnicutt was recently nominated by colleagues as a Covid Hero for the work he did as a nurse at Matilda Smith while still in recovery himself.
About a year ago, he was asked by the Ministry of Health to work on Covid-19 response efforts and was later promoted to take charge of all Government testing operations.
Mr Hunnicut said: “I had no idea what I was in for when I got the phone call from the recruiter to see if I could help the government. I have a skill set that can benefit so I thought, let’s do it.
“Through my journey I knew I had the support of my friends and family and seeing them trying to be strong for me was enough for me to conquer whatever adversity I needed to. That was my motivation – I knew that I had to get through it no matter what and I did.”