Excelling against all odds

There hasn’t been a lot of feel-good news seeping from the world of sports recently.

News of steroids, outrageous ticket prices and empty seats have overshadowed the first two months of baseball season. And even NASCAR is dealing with a drug scandal.

Off-the-field arrests have dominated headlines in the NFL offseason. And who isn’t sick of the Brett Favre soap opera?

Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924, but she raced to the victory in front of a relatively small crowd. To restore civility and halt what had become an all-day party at the racetrack, Pimlico Race Course officials banned spectators from bringing their own alcoholic beverages. The result: 30 percent fewer spectators than last year.

Michael Phelps returned — from a drug suspension — to win his first race since the Beijing Olympics. And the NBA playoffs have been marred by suspensions, trash talk and a feud between a team’s owner, an opposing player, and the opposing player’s mother.


For every Mark Cuban, there’s a Jeff Meyer.

For every Manny Ramirez, there’s a Riley Meester.

For every Bruce Smith, there’s an Emily Ebbers.

And whenever I find myself disgusted by the actions of professional athletes, questioning my love for sports and regretting that I’ve become so immersed in an aspect of American culture that breeds so much negativity, someone like Meghan Westendorf allows me to tell her story and helps me realize why I love my job and why I love sports.

A junior on Worthington’s girls’ golf team, Westendorf suffers from cystic fibrosis, a fatal genetic disorder that affects nearly 30,000 Americans.

The disease causes mucus to build up and clog the lungs and airways, making breathing difficult. The excess mucus also can block the pancreas, stopping digestive enzymes from getting to the intestines, where they break down food and provide important nutrients that help people grow, gain weight and stay healthy.

As a result of her affliction, Westendorf had "six or seven" surgeries before she turned 4 years old. She goes to the doctor at least 10 times per year, and she winds up in the hospital once or twice every year.
Meghan Westendorf
Her lungs typically function at approximately 60 percent of their full potential. And, right now, with the grueling golf season coming to an end, her lungs are working at about 47 to 49 percent.

She’s had blood drawn from her forearms so many times that a portacath was surgically inserted below her shoulder blades so doctors could more easily attach an IV feed and rest the veins in her forearms.

She takes 10 pills in the morning, six at lunch and 12 before bed. She takes aerosolized medication, a process that works much like an asthma inhaler, up to four times per day for 20 minutes at a time. She also undergoes "vest therapy," in which she wears a life-vest-like contraption that is connected to a machine by two hoses, which fill with air and vibrate the vest to loosen mucus in her chest so it can more easily be coughed out.

She coughs about 650 times per day, and she eats nearly as much — those suffering from cystic fibrosis find it very difficult to gain weight, and they often are advised to consume at least 3,000 calories per day. Meghan downs ice cream before she goes to bed and wakes up hoping that she’s added some weight to her 110-pound frame.

But there are two things Meghan never does:

She never complains.

She never quits.

Meghan truly is an inspiration; a light as bright as her smile in a sports world that sometimes is darker than the future of cystic fibrosis patients.

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, and the average life expectancy is 38 years.

But Meghan doesn’t think about that; instead, she tries to live her life one day at time — just like the rest of us.

She doesn’t want anybody to know that she’s different, hiding her treatments, medication and diagnoses from others.

A starter on Worthington’s golf team since her ninth-grade year, Meghan refused to use a motorized cart — she didn’t want to stand out, to receive curious stares from her opponents, who must carry their bags.

She finally decided to file for an exemption and start using a cart after she had to quit a meet in Worthington last season because of soreness, fatigue and shortness of breath. Two days later, she was in the hospital. Later in the season, however, she was back on the course.

Meghan doesn’t dwell on the negatives; instead, she focuses on the positives.

I think I can learn something from her.

Meghan plans to go to college, earn a degree in business, and start a family. She said she doesn’t even think about the uncertain future that faces those with cystic fibrosis. She doesn’t let it affect her.

Meghan and her parents, Pam and Ty Westendorf, hope and pray that a cure will be found.
Scientists are getting closer. The current average age of survival is five years longer than the average in 2000.

"It’s very tough," Pam said. "My husband always says, ‘If you can’t change it, don’t worry about it; just do what you have to do.’

"They’ve made a lot of strides; since she was born with it, things have gotten a lot better and (doctors) have gotten a lot closer (to a cure). So there’s always hope that in 10 more years they’ll have made better strides or have been able to do more work to make it so (those with CF) can live longer and do better.

"They told us that, hopefully, by the time Meghan graduates from high school, the research would be where they would be closer to a cure than they were when she was born. So I keep hoping, ‘OK, that’s next year.’"

The rest of us also can hope. But we can do so much more to help.

If Meghan’s story has touched you, like it has touched me, please visit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website and do what you can to help.

You can make a donation — “Money buys science and science buys life” — or even join a clinical trial.

If that isn’t feasible, you can contact your local Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chapter, volun-teer and "learn about the many special events that raise money to keep the science moving ahead." The nearest CFF chapter is located in St. Paul.

You also can become an advocate to help raise awareness and educate yourself and others, including elected officials, about cystic fibrosis.

Meghan wants to live a normal life. She doesn’t want any special attention. She doesn’t want to be treated any differently than "normal" girls her age. She doesn’t want any help.

But she needs help. And so do all the others suffering from cystic fibrosis.

Meghan doesn’t want or need assistance with her day-to-day life, but we can help to make sure she keeps that mindset for much, much longer.