Labor of love
Story and photos by Aimee Freston
For many engaged couples, the days leading up to the wedding are hectic. There are last minute details to arrange and guests to accommodate, but for Amberle Durano and Hunter Brown, the most important prewedding activity was not for their own comfort, but to help others. On May 2, one day before their wedding, Durano and Brown, along with their wedding party, volunteered at Buckner Family Pathways in Dallas, hosting a craft and playtime for the children.
“When we think about our wedding and trying to show the gospel through all parts of it, we thought serving others was a great way to do that,” Brown said.
The couple wanted to take advantage of the one time in their lives when all their closest friends and family would be together by creating a sweet time of service. They hoped this event would set the tone for their marriage as something centered on serving not only each other, but others around them as well.
“We have been the recipients of so much service and of people coming around us and supporting us in difficult times, so I think that’s one of the reasons we really wanted that to be something our marriage is marked by,” Durano said.
Durano and Brown are just 23 years old, but already they know a little something about pain, suffering, commitment and patience.
In 2011, Durano was attending Texas Christian University. She became acquainted with Brown through her roommate. Brown enjoys cooking, and he would come over often, hosting dinner parties for all their friends.
“Basically, he likes to cook, and I like to eat,” Durano laughed. It was the start of a friendship, but only a friendship. Durano confessed she never seriously considered dating him because she wanted to be a missionary and he was going to be a professional golfer. In her mind, those two careers were not compatible.
Then one day, Durano broke out in a bad case of hives. Because she was having trouble breathing, she went to the emergency room. It was clear she was having an allergic reaction, but the doctor who treated her recognized the severity of her condition almost immediately. He diagnosed her with an extremely rare disease called toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome (TENS).
TENS is a life-threatening disease usually induced by an adverse reaction to a medication. Often called “the flesh-eating” disease, TENS ravishes the body by destroying not only the skin, but also the body’s mucous membranes and even the organs.
Durano was in the hospital for the next several months as TENS consumed her body. She had an extremely severe form, losing 95 percent of her skin and the lining of her eyes, digestive and respiratory tracts. The only part of her body not affected by the disease was her feet.
“It was the most life-changing thing that has ever happened to me,” Durano said. “A lot of people die from this disease, and it’s usually because the doctors can’t figure out what it is in time. Because it is so rare, a lot of doctors just haven’t seen it before, but my ER doctor who diagnosed me had seen it before. It was a miracle we found out so quickly about it.”
There is no real treatment for TENS. Externally, it is treated the same as those with severe burns with intense wound care to avoid infection. Internally, it’s a waiting game as the body must rid itself of the affected skin on the body and organs and then regenerate it. It’s a long process that usually takes a year to truly recover from.
It was a trying time in Durano’s life. One of the major side effects of the disease was the temporary loss of vision. She had to withdraw from her classes as she stayed in the burn unit at the hospital, but she was never lonely. Friends and family were constantly by her side. Brown was one of those friends. He came to visit Durano in the hospital, though Durano admitted she couldn’t see him because of her blindness, but remembers reaching her hand out to him while he was in the room.
Durano was released from the hospital within a few months, but her skin was still regenerating, and it was months after her release before her vision was partially restored.
“The difficult part, I realize now, isn’t the months in the hospital in the ICU,” Durano said. “I was unconscious for most of that. The hard part is waking up every day and being in pain and to have it hurt to go outside. So it’s the day-to-day endurance that is the hard part. That’s where I have been blessed by the support of community and the prayers of people all over the continent pretty much. It is unbelievable to see the family of God come together like that.”
By the time she was back at school, Durano still faced many difficulties, including not being able to drive or see at night. Brown became a devoted friend. He drove Durano to the places she needed to be or would just sit with her to keep her company.
“Hunter was extremely faithful as a friend in that season of suffering, so that’s what won me over,” Durano said. About six months later, Brown and Durano started dating, but it wasn’t an easy transition. They were friends for so long, it was hard to make the jump to being in a dating relationship, but God worked on both their hearts, revealing what his plan was for them. Brown began to feel called into ministry, and Durano realized she was idolizing missions.
During their whole relationship, Brown and Durano focused on serving together. They taught first grade at their church, volunteered with a homeless organization and helped plan a kid’s club for a refugee organization.
“Serving is something that Amberle and I have always done together,” Brown said. “It’s really just from becoming Christians and seeing the love shown to us from God that makes us want to serve.”
It wasn’t long before they were engaged.
“I always tell my friends, don’t rule [people] out. Don’t make assumptions; you just never know,” Durano said.
Another thing Durano could not foresee was their future doing mission work as a couple. Brown transitioned out of professional golf, though he still plays and uses golf as a means for ministry, but one month after their wedding, Durano and Brown moved to Baltimore to start a church.
“I’m definitely thrilled about doing the church plant,” Brown said. “It’s going to be very new for us, but it’s a cool opportunity and so very clear that’s where we need to go. It’s been an easy decision because this is what God wants us to do.”
At Buckner Family Pathways, about 10 children gather around Brown as he pulls out a children’s book by Max Lucado. Sitting in Durano’s lap, two girls cuddle close to her as Brown reads the story, encouraging the children to know how special they are to God.
Afterward, they gather at tables to decorate wooden boxes filled with uplifting Bible verses.
Sarah Jones, Buckner ministry engagement coordinator for Dallas, said it was a special time for the children.
“It’s just a constant reminder to our kids that they are loved, valued and important,” she said. “We love giving them the opportunity to feel treasured.”
Outside of actually getting married, Brown and Durano admitted that volunteering at Buckner was their favorite part of their wedding weekend.
“I loved when the kids started to open up and be more comfortable with us, so we felt like they were our friends and were sad when we left,” Brown said. “We were sad to leave them too.”
“It was just a wonderful opportunity and so meaningful to us,” Durano added. “I think it was a great way to set the tone for what we wanted our whole wedding weekend and marriage to be like.”
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