As an active sister of the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority, a junior majoring in primary education and employee for the campus school, Hunter Walden enjoys what college has to offer to its full potential, without allowing her past to define her future.
Since birth, Walden has dealt with Cheiloschisis, also known as the cleft lip birth defect, which is a failed development in the roof of the mouth. The effects of cleft lip are immediately noticeable once a child is born, making air travel through the nasal ridge impossible. Walden’s mother used infant care feeders and syringes that allowed her daughter to breathe and eat at the same time.
In her 20 years of living, Walden has had 23 surgeries for her cleft lip birth defect, two being more severe than the rest.
At the age of nine, Walden was forced to take time off from school due to an alveolar bone graft surgery, where surgeons extracted a bone from her hip and placed it in her gum line to make it stronger. After her surgery, Walden was on bed rest for two weeks, and once she was able, had to learn how to walk again.
“Meaning, at nine years old, I was crawling,” Walden said. “My recovery time was two months, which is forever when you’re a child.”
Walden struggled with breathing through her nose, but thanks to a reconstructive nose surgery at the age of 18, she was able to breathe through her nose for the first time.
“The complete nasal reconstruction is also known as Rhinoplasty. This surgery took place June of 2012 and was supposed to be my last needed surgery.”
Unfortunately, the doctors were wrong. After the surgery on her nose, Walden endured 11 more surgeries. Walden had to miss a lot of classes and has unfortunately failed a college course due the surgeries and the recovery times.
“Where my cleft was located, there wasn’t any bone,” Walden said. “That’s why I had the bone graph from my hip when I was nine. After I had my braces removed, my teeth were still too tiny so they put crowns on four of my teeth. One tooth that was crowned was on a bone that was deteriorating. The doctors ended up pulling that tooth, tried multiple bone grafts and packing in a bone to help fill in that hole where the bone had been deteriorated.” The surgeries were unsuccessful, though. Each time a fake bone was packed in, the bone kept absorbing into Walden’s skin and disappeared. “In the end, the doctors created a bridge like a retainer, which had gum tissue built in.”
Luckily, on Sept. 12, 2014, the doctor’s gave the most anticipated news that the fake bridge was a success and she no longer needed any more surgeries.
In elementary school, her classmates weren’t as cruel, but come middle and high school, Walden was a victim of bullying because of a birth defect she had zero control over. Whether the jokes were a whisper behind her back or straight to her face, students were harsh and mocked her upper lip saying, “it looks like a four wheeler ran over your face.” Her cheer squad, teammates who were supposed to have her back, teased her, saying her face was burned in a fire. Students were even more creative with their degrading nickname like “bull dog.”
With such negativity forced down her throat, Walden never had to fight her battles alone. Thanks to her supportive mother and over protective brother, there was always someone by her side.
“School was not easy for her,” said Walden’s mother. “Many nights I sat on her bed and told her to prove them wrong and to never let anyone tell her she is not beautiful cause to me she is a special Angel that God took extra time with and made extra special, so she could teach people how to understand that we are all different.”
Walden’s mother even encouraged her daughter to participate in a beauty pageant.
“My little girl said she couldn’t win because a little boy had told her she was the beast from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” I told her to go out there and show them she was a strikingly beautiful little girl and it did not matter if she won. What mattered was that she and the audience saw that nothing can’t break my little girl. I can still see her smile when she watched me the whole time, walking across the stage and at that moment, I knew she was going to be ok. I knew that I had created a fighter, a strong little girl that not even the biggest bully could break.”
“I am blessed that God gave me a special Angel and that he trusted me with her,” Walden’s mother continued. “I would not change one day of her life because in each day, she learned to fight harder, to never give up and, most of all, that she is beautiful and that her mom always has her back.”
The hounding from her classmates was continuous, impossible to escape and bullying had become second nature. To Walden’s surprise, a boy whose locker was next to hers in high school had gotten suspended after punching a guy who had been making jokes about her in the locker room. Eventually, the football team took up for Walden, giving her more support than her own cheerleading team.
“[In high school] I tried to get my team to do a fundraiser for cleft lip awareness, but it was a constant failure.”
Now in college, Walden has found the support system she had desperately wished for in high school. Thanks to her supportive sorority Alpha Sigma Alpha, fellow colleagues, administrators and faculty members, the University of West Alabama’s halls and sidewalks were filled with pink apparel and ribbons on Sept. 17 to raise awareness for cleft lip. Walden was overwhelmed with tears of appreciation from the support shown on campus.
“Thank you to everyone,” Walden expressed. “It meant the absolute world to me, to see people supporting something that is so close to my heart.”
Because of Walden’s fighting spirit and encouraging heart, she has touched the lives of her fellow colleagues and sorority sisters.
“Hunter has a way of brightening the room when she walks in,” said Alana Foster. “I have known this from the very first time I saw her and shortly after she not only became my sorority sister but my very own little. She has a huge heart filled with more passion for others than herself. I am so proud of the huge advocate Hunter is for never giving up, loving life, standing for what she believes, and being able to share all of the trials she has faced. Anyone that has been blessed to meet her would agree that she is a light in this dark world! She truly has a smile that shows so much strength and hope for the future.”
Walden’s dreams are to become an elementary teacher with the hopes of educating children on the cleft lip birth defect. “I’ve recently ordered a bear with cleft lip and it comes with a book that talks about cleft lip,” said Walden. “I’ve even found a baby doll with the birth defect. They’ve covered all races and even made a doll with cancer, so seeing a doll with cleft lip truly does make me happy.”
For Walden, during the daily struggles in her past, present and future, she holds an unattributed quote dear to her heart, which reads, ”Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”