DURHAM (WTVD) -- Duke Medicine has created a new Gender Clinic to offer a wide variety of services under one roof to children and teens dealing with gender issues.
These can range from issues with genitalia that hasn't properly developed, to issues with going through puberty, to even helping transgender kids and teens. These are services that have proven to be a huge help to one Raleigh family.
Hunter Schafer is a beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American looking girl. With a warm smile and a gracious, self-assured manner, she conveys both intelligence and maturity beyond her years.
Perhaps that's because at just 16 she's already been on a journey of self-discovery and introspection that led her to a conclusion that has completely reshaped who she is, or at least who she presents as. That's because Hunter was actually born a boy, but says she now identifies as female. It's not a decision made on a whim, either. Instead, she says it's the product of years of feeling that something wasn't quite right.
"When I was in preschool we had a dress-up box and I would go there every day and take out the pink princess dress and put it on," Hunter recalls.
As Hunter got older she started to do some research to explain why she felt and acted the way she did. She started attending LGBT Youth Groups and the LGBT Center of Raleigh, and that's when she was introduced to a term she hadn't heard of or at least understood before, "Transgender."
"I met some transgender people, or people who didn't identify with the two binary genders, and that kind of opened my eyes," she explains.
And then, after careful consideration and soul searching, she approached her parents to share the news.
"I was shocked. I think I said, 'No, you're not,' because I didn't understand the weight behind what Hunter was really saying. And, what I didn't understand at that point, was who Hunter felt that she was on the inside," shared Hunter's mom, Katy.
"We listened a lot to Hunter. And we are open people, and so we did have a posture of listening and watching. Inside we were freaking out quite a bit, but we gave things time. And we had seen a lot of things as Hunter was growing up, so I think we knew in our hearts something was going on," said Hunter's dad, Mac.
THE NEXT STEP
With Hunter's happiness and well-being in mind, her parents set out to help her as best they could. They took her to a therapist in Raleigh named Marty Ireland. Ireland then connected them with physicians at Duke who suggested hormone blockers that would prevent Hunter from going through puberty and transitioning to a man, something that was causing her a great deal of anxiety.
"There's no playbook for this and we, well-educated people, with resources, we didn't even know where to go to begin with this," Katy admitted. "And so I'm really thankful for the medical piece that stepped in, because this was bigger than what we understood."
Katy and Mac say Duke doctors reassured them by explaining that hormone blockers weren't harmful or even permanent.
"It put Hunter's development as a male on pause, so we could talk as a family, so Hunter could have time without the onslaught of puberty," Mac explains.
DUKE CENTER FOR CHILD AND ADOLESCENT GENDER CARE
Now, Duke is trying to offer that same support to others through a new center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care. As Director Deanna Adkins explains, this isn't limited to just Transgender children, it also offers help to those with problems developing gender due to chromosomal problems or other issues.
"We are working with all kinds of kids, from infants to teens. And we take care of children that are having problems developing gender. Gender can be anywhere from chromosomal problems like Turner Syndrome and Klinefelter syndrome, which is very common, to problems with the actual growth and going through puberty itself," Adkins explained.
As for how the center will help patients and their families, Adkins describes it as a collaborative approach.
"We have psychiatry and psychology working with us. We also have clinical social work for family support and counseling. We have pediatric urology for kids who may require surgery at some point. The endocrinologist and I will be doing hormonal therapy. We also have fertility components for kids who may have issues and not be fertile or might need assistance later on. We have a child and adolescent medical team who works with us, and they partnered with genetics and neonatology for infant care," outlined Adkins.
Adkins goes on to explain that the goal is to provide not only medical care, but emotional assistance as well. It's something that has been invaluable to Hunter and her family.
There is not yet a website specifically for this clinic. Anyone interested in setting up an appointment should call: (919) 684-8225.
A HAPPY ENDING/NEW BEGINNING
As Hunter begins to find comfort in her own skin, she and her family are sharing their story.
Mac, a local pastor, says their family has been very open with their congregation in hopes of shedding light on the issue. He said so far, the reaction of his parishoners has been a positive one, partially because so many of them have watched Hunter's struggles growing up.
As for Hunter, she's started taking on speaking engagements to share her experience. And her openness and bravery has garnered respect and admiration from her peers, who voted her to the Queen's Court last year at Broughton High School.
Now she says she can relax and simply be herself after peeling back many layers of the onion, as she describes it, offering this advice to others:
"Just listen to what you desire on the inside, because it's there, and it's real."