Local boy plays hard, despite heart disease
Above the knee and ignoring the scar on his chest, Austin Dungan appears to be as normal as any other Sasquatch hunting, army playing, LSU cheering 12-year-old.
That’s because normal is all he knows.
“We’ve taught him his whole life that he’s not sick, not different than everybody else and not to let people feel sorry for him or to feel sorry for himself,” Austin’s mom, Jennifer Dungan said.
Still, when Jennifer grew concerned that Austin wasn’t crawling with other toddlers’ his age, she realized it wasn’t because of his heart problems or his amputated left leg, but because she never let him out of her arms.
Was she overprotective?
Jennifer’s husband, Derrick, tucked his chin in his chest, giving emphatic nod as he leaned with folded arms against the kitchen counter.
Jennifer said being overly cautious toward her baby born with a congenital heart disease — truncus arteriosus — and a missing tibia was difficult to shake. Untreated, truncus arteriosus can leak too much blood to the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
And coddling Austin was an area in which her husband, a Vidalia Fire Department firefighter, often chided her.
“‘You gotta let him be a little boy,’” Jennifer mimicked, in her impression of Derrick’s manly voice, as he stood right behind her.
But Jennifer was quick to point out Derrick has had his moments, too, like the time Austin hit his head on the coffee table as a toddler.
“The front door went flying open, and the coffee table went out the door,” Jennifer said, laughing.
Derrick remembered telling his wife, “Don’t bring it back in here, either.”
All babies hit their heads on coffee tables, Jennifer said. But not all children undergo four open-heart surgeries before their 13th birthday.
Shortly after Austin, an Adams County Christian School fifth-grade student, gets out of school this month, the family will take a trip to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where four or five scrubbed up surgeons will stand over him to fix his heart.
Austin said as far as he knows, he will go to sleep for two seconds and wake up when surgery’s done, just like he remembered when he was in second grade at an Iowa hospital. Jennifer said while Austin has a great attitude most of the time, he has moments when he struggles, asking her why he’s the only one who has to have all these surgeries.
But at school Friday, Austin seemed to get a kick out of his friends’ worry for him.
On the sidelines at dodgeball during P.E. class, Austin’s friend, Mason Nettles, talked about Austin’s surgery.
“It’s just, like, sad, cause I don’t want him to pass,” Nettles said as he walked up to Austin, who was seated on the bleacher, and wrapped an arm around Austin’s head in a boy-hug.
Austin just laughed.
Austin said most of his friends think his prosthetic leg is cool, especially purple-and yellow leg with an LSU tiger theme. And Austin’s known to tell newcomers he scored his metal leg after a shark attack.
When Austin was developing before birth, the blood shunted to his leg and his tibia wasn’t formed. When he was just 13 weeks old, his parents made the decision to amputate it rather than confine Austin to a wheelchair. It was an especially difficult decision for Derrick and one that Austin thinks should have been a no brainer.
“You shoulda just been like, ‘chop,’” Austin said, motioning his hand toward his knee.
Fifth-grader Tyler Davis said Austin is cool, nice and he doesn’t start fights.
“He’s my friend,” Davis said. “If anybody picks on him I’ll say something to them. It ain’t (Austin’s) fault he came out with no leg,” Davis said.
Jacob Wilson, who wore a red “Getting Austin to Boston” T-shirt to dodgeball, said he might throw a party and put up picket signs saying welcome home from Boston, Austin,” when Austin returns from surgery.
“You better,” Austin said.
Austin’s P.E. teacher, Melanie Hall, said she would never know Austin had heart issues or a prosthetic leg by the way he competes and plays.
“(Austin is) never going to ever tell you ‘I need to go out or sit down’ — he wants to play,” Hall said.
“He’s just all boy.”
Jennifer said she’s not sure what Austin’s prognosis will be once the surgery is complete.
“It’s hard to tell, there’s not a lot of truncus babies around,” Jennifer said.
They had hoped he would be a teenager when it came time for his fourth surgery, but a specialist discovered a number of problems and confirmed it was time for another one after Austin got checked out after falling short of breath during basketball season in February.
“The doctor calls it a very complex case,” Jennifer said.
The biggest bummer for Austin was the fact that he had to sit out of Dixie Youth baseball this year. But he still goes to the games all the time. And he’s proud to say his basketball team won the championship last year and his baseball team won the championship last year.
She has tried to encourage him to rest more — even by coaxing him into watching TV. But it’s hard to tame a little boy, Jennifer said.
“TV rots the brain,” Austin said.
“They expect me to stay inside all day. I’m an outdoors man.”
Instead, Austin prefers to play army, where he leans against trees outside the family’s mobile home off Palestine Road and shoots at things — not houses, though, he said. He’s also obsessed with sasquatch because of the TV show “Finding Bigfoot,” on Animal Planet.
“(Austin) will stand on the front porch and go, oowaaww!” Jennifer said — a common bait for the creatures.
He’s also a big hunter and has his own bow a little smaller than his dad’s for when they go hunting in Rodney. When Austin recovered from his last surgery and was encouraged not to talk, he used a duck call to get his parents’ attention.
In order to help foot insurance and travel bills, the Dungans are accepting donations in a Concordia Bank account called Jennifer Dungan for benefit of Austin Dungan.
But Austin, who clearly looks up to his firefighter father, seems to take his father’s lead on the worry front.
“There’s no sense in worrying until it’s time,” Derrick said.
And Jennifer tries to do the same by listening to her husband’s advice: “You don’t worry until I worry.”
The last time Austin returned from surgery in Iowa, VFD employees lined his street with nearly a hundred balloons welcoming him home. With a commitment of his friends and their picket signs, he looks forward to the “prizes” he’ll get when he returns home.
The family looks forward to Austin’s recovery, when Austin can get back to his busy schedule of being a little boy.
“That Austin…” Coach Hall said. “He’s going to go all out.”
“He’s got so much heart.”