By Tris Wykes
CANAAN – Caleb Hobbs is 6 foot 1 and 240 pounds and an All-State football honoree for Mascoma High. However, the senior isn’t beyond donning a costume for laughs, even while under duress.
Earlier this month, Hobbs dressed as the Will Ferrell movie character “Buddy the Elf”, complete with tight yellow pants, wide belt and pointy hat. The 18-year old participated in his town’s drive-by holiday celebration and visited a preschool, where the top of the tallest student’s head only reached Hobbs’ hip. During football season, the senior unexpectedly appeared at one practice in a tie-dye shirt and extra-short shorts.
“He expresses his personality and doesn’t get caught up in self image,” said third-year Mascoma football coach Kyle Colburn. “He brought a lot of energy to the team without yelling at anybody. He was always positive and upbeat. Knowing now what he’s been going through at home, that took incredible mental strength.”
Hobbs’ father, John, was diagnosed several years ago with an autoimmune disease that affected his joints and caused his fingers to swell. That was followed by the onset of kidney disease, with lung and blood pressure complications added in.
The ailments have caused John Hobbs to lose weight and endure relentless fatigue. He went on dialysis a year ago and endures the 5-hour blood-cleansing procedure and the ensuing cramps and headaches three times a week, although he’s never one to complain.
“It is what it is, but it’s better than the alternative,” said John Hobbs, who operates his own auto body shop. “It’s not like it’s some morbid thing that consumes my mind. I haven’t missed a single one of the kids’ games and I work when I can.”
Two months ago, the Hobbs were told John’s dialysis was becoming progressively less effective and that he needed a kidney transplant. However, being on the national waiting list for such an organ currently means a delay of roughly 10 years, which is unrealistic for his situation.
The 47-year old Newbury, Vt., native and 1991 Blue Mountain High graduate played soccer and baseball for the Bucks and worked at a breakneck pace for 25 years, although he’s had to dial that back recently as one of more than 100,000 people in the U.S. awaiting a kidney transplant.
“John’s only vice is that he’s a workaholic, so sitting home drives him crazy,” said his wife, Jen Hobbs, a resident services coordinator for the local Twin Pines Housing nonprofit organization. “You want to keep busy and feel you’re a part of things for your mental health.”
That’s where sports come in for Caleb and his brother, Connor, a 15-year old Mascoma High freshman. Conditioning workouts, practicing and playing games give them a few hours per day where worries about their father’s health and their family’s future don’t intrude.
“It’s good to have healthy ways to get bad thoughts out of your head,” said Caleb Hobbs, who also works part-time at a Canaan hardware store. “Sports is so important for kids’ mental health. It’s not spoken about a lot, but if you walk around the high school and really look, there are a lot of people struggling and trying not to show it.”
Cory Hobbs, the eldest of John and Jen’s three boys, played football at Mascoma several years ago. He was followed by Caleb, who seized the starting center job as a 5-9, 165-pound sophomore during Colburn’s first season. The Royals have been steadily rebuilding since and Hobbs has served as an example of what intensity, smarts and dedication to physical conditioning can accomplish.
“The other kids have seen what he’s done with his body,” Colburn said. “He’s an excellent student and that carries over to his making all our line calls. He’s the reason a lot of our kids do the right things, on and off the field.”
Caleb Hobbs is also a standout wrestler and his team recently began contact practices before suspending them until next week as a Covid-19 precaution. He’s hoping to start college next year but doesn’t want to enroll at an institution too far away so he can make regular family visits.
“My parents are still trying to shield us from a lot of what’s happening,” said Caleb Hobbs, who bonds with his father while they watch sports on TV. “My dad is very insistent that things don’t get slowed down just because of him. He’s one of the most genuine people I know. He’s my hero.”
John Hobbs’ blood type is O positive. However, advances in communication and transplant networks mean all he requires is one volunteer meeting various health guidelines and willing to donate one of their two kidneys. It’s a tactic known as paired donation.
Healthy adults only need one kidney to live a normal life. Hobbs’ potential donor’s kidney might go to a recipient in, say, Arizona. A kidney match Hobbs needs might currently be inside a donor in Minnesota or any other state. Kidney donor/recipient “chains” have occasionally exceeded 100 participants.
“I hope and pray we find a match for John, but something good is going to come out of this,” Jen Hobbs said. “If anyone can find a match, that would be incredible.”
Jen Hobbs said her husband, whose parents are deceased, isn’t socially connected with his extended family. Donors must be at least 21 and although Cory Hobbs is that age, he faces some significant donation hurdles. Just making John’s need public through social media posts last week was a difficult decision.
“We’re really quick to help someone but not so much to ask for it,” Caleb Hobbs said. “We like to solve our problems within our small circle.”
The response to going public has been strong. One Facebook post about John’s need has been seen by more than 12,000 users and shared nearly 200 times. More than 5,000 people per year donate kidneys in the U.S., making it the most common living donation process.
Rob Johnstone, a Windsor High teacher and Lebanon High’s longtime boys soccer coach, donated one of his kidneys to his late father, Bruce, in 2008, extending the older man’s life by a decade. Johnstone is known for high pain tolerance, but encourages even those without it to consider the procedure.
“The reward was so much greater than the risk, because what’s greater than saving a life?” said Johnstone, who left the hospital in less than 48 hours and saw his father return to normal kidney function within days. “I’m not some particularly brave person, but it was not a traumatic experience.”
One of Johnstone’s friends is a former Lebanon High player now in his 40s, who was part of a kidney paired donation chain in 2016. “Steve” asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he’s concerned use of his actual name might jeopardize the privacy of others in that chain. He echoes Johnstone’s feelings.
“There is no hard data that says donating a kidney changes your life expectancy,” Steve said. “The thought in my head was I can do this and only thing stopping me is my own fear. Then I felt nauseous and laid on the floor with my feet against the wall in CVS.”
Steve’s also afraid of needles, but he plowed through his reticence and was home the day after surgery. He experienced considerable soreness for two weeks, but notes that he took almost no pain medicine, wary of addiction possibilities.
“If you think you can do it and you’re healthy enough, you can do it,” Steve said. “You don’t have to match with the person you want to help.”
Caleb Hobbs waits and hopes that someone has a similar epiphany with his father in mind. An approved wrestling season would help distract him, but he has to be mindful of contracting Covid-19, which could have severe affects for John. In the meantime, he’s characteristically trying to cheer up those around him.
“I can tell my mom’s more stressed out lately,” Caleb Hobbs said. I’ve been trying to give her more hugs throughout the day and tell her I love her and help more around the house. I want to be more a positive beacon in my parents’ lives, because I’m so grateful for what they have done for me.”
Resources for those contemplating kidney donation include the National Kidney Foundation (kidney.org). Other helpful pages can be found through the University of Utah’s Health, Hospitals and Clinics at https://tinyurl.com/yabefe3y
Those considering a local donation can reach Cathy Pratt, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s transplant coordinator, at 603-653-3931.