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29 March 2017Last updated
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Features | Health

‘Exercise is the best way to clear the airways’

Jerry Cahill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 10 and told he had just six years to live. Today, he is 60 and a top athlete, thanks to regular exercise, he tells Sarah Gibbons

Sarah Gibbons
11 Dec 2016 | 09:30 am
  • Source:Supplied Image 1 of 3
  • Jerry exercises with a passion and is a volunteer with sports foundations. His story has been documented in Up For Air

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

Puffing out his chest and taking in a big breath, Jerry Cahill set off on his run up, dug his pole firmly into the ground and vaulted over the bar. A clear round. Another vault over more than 4.5m.

Not bad for a 60-year-old.

Pretty good for someone who has had a double lung transplant.

Great for a guy battling a terminal condition who, as a young child, doctors said was likely to be dead by his 16th birthday.

Jerry, who lives in New York, US, suffers from cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 70,000 children and adults worldwide.

Sufferers inherit a defective gene that causes a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs making it extremely hard to breathe, trapping bacteria in the airways causing lung infections and, ultimately, respiratory failure.

Almost 50 years on from Jerry’s diagnosis with all the developments in medical science, the life expectancy of a sufferer is still only 36.

When Jerry was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 10, following repeated bouts of pneumonia from which he struggled to recover, his parents had wildly different views on how to take care of him given that the doctors treating him warned he would be lucky to reach the age of 16.

His mother, Mary, recalls: ‘I was devastated to think my poor child was going to have to suffer with this diagnosis. As his mother I wanted to wrap my arms around him and keep him safe, keep him inside. But my husband Eddie said ‘Jerry’s going to be out there playing ball, doing everything that his brothers do. He shan’t be treated differently’.

‘And that’s what we did – he was thrown into the pack and raised like everybody else.’

Jerry was introduced to the world of sport – the action he now pinpoints as the single most important thing that has seen him defy the medical odds and pass countless life expectancy ‘deadlines’. ‘I saw a lot of sick people when I was diagnosed, and people not making it and passing away. In a lot of ways I put blinders on and said I would stay strong and that I would exercise to stay healthy,’ says Jerry.

But he could not go on sleepovers or to camps ‘because I didn’t want to take my medication and machines with me. There were too many difficult questions and situations. People would comment on how skinny I was. It was like a battlefield.’

His condition meant taking countless tablets and having suction on his lungs to keep them clear.

His bedroom had a special mist tent for him to sleep in.

‘I went out to play with friends but there were a lot of things I couldn’t participate in,’ says Jerry. ‘I accepted that and put myself into my exercise and eating healthy.’

Jerry first tried his hand at baseball – a game he admits, he did not exactly excel in – and after an eye injury he vowed never to play again.

He next tried football, then basketball but the tackling was too much for him so he turned his attention to cross-country running. 
‘It was the greatest thing because I was running and coughing up all that mucus keeping my lungs clear and making them stronger. Then I moved to track and field, especially pole vaulting, which I fell in love with. I was 14.’

In between bouts of medication and hours a day of a regime to rid his lungs of the excess mucus, Jerry drove himself on through a rigorous training programme and soon extended his involvement on the athletics scene into coaching pole vaulting to high school youngsters for national competitions.

‘All this after the age of 16 when my parents had been told I wouldn’t be here,’ reflects Jerry.

Beyond his athletic successes, the activity was a lifeline for Jerry. ‘Exercise is the best way the clear airways,’ he says. ‘You’re running and moving and coughing, which really helps clear out your lungs.

‘I exercise every day. You can’t get caught in a comfort zone, eating whatever and not exercising. For someone with CF that could be lethal.’

Jerry enjoyed a successful career as a seller for a high-end fashion house but when his lung function started to decline he had his first serious discussions with doctors about a possible double lung transplant.

He reluctantly gave up work but continued exercising and started working as a volunteer in the CF community, creating programmes, podcasts, and sports foundations to help and inspire CF sufferers.

On April 12, 2012, he underwent a long and complicated lung transplant surgery that would give him a healthy pair of lungs. He was 56.

Double lung transplants have a 50 per cent survival rate within the first four years after surgery.

After 48 hours in a medically-induced coma, Jerry took his first tentative steps.

Less than a month later on May 1, he jogged for the first time since surgery. ‘It felt fine and I never looked back,’ recalls Jerry. Since then he has competed in two 800km bike races. He is currently taking part in the 60 for 60 – completing 60 events in the year you turn 60 (his birthday was in June). The challenge includes fishing, karaoke, push ups and donating blood.

‘It’s about living, breathing and succeeding,’ says Jerry.

The 60-year-old has written five books – adult and children’s literature – about his inspirational story and the challenges associated with life as a CF sufferer. In 2012, a documentary was made about his struggle with the disease, the transplant process and his road back to health and fitness post-surgery, including his first steps back on to the athletics track.

Up For Air is inspiring a new generation of CF patients as Jerry reveals his new daily routine includes a 30-40km bike ride every morning, office work for his charity foundations, pole-vaulting coaching (four times a week), followed by an afternoon bike ride or workout in the gym – along with a further strict medication routine, as his body could reject the new lungs at any time.

Jerry has never married and says, ‘CF was always such a burden I never wanted to have anybody else involved.

‘As a precaution to stay away from infection, I don’t take public transport. I don’t really shake hands. I’ll do a bump and nod at people. It’s isolating at times but you have a choice.’

Jerry’s top tips for tackling CF:

  • Keep exercising, every day if you can. Exercise is the best way to clear airways.
  • Eat well. People with CF need a higher caloric intake. It’s why we take a lot of digestive enzymes. But eat good stuff. You can’t get caught in a comfort zone, eating whatever and not exercising, because that could be lethal.
  • Stay positive. Move forward. You have to live.

What is cystic fibrosis?

  • Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a life-threatening, genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system. People with CF inherit a defective gene that causes a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs.
  • Mucus clogging the lungs can make it extremely difficult to breathe. It also blocks the natural release of digestive enzymes, meaning the body does not break down food as it should.
  • While healthy people cough naturally, that does not happen for people with CF. Eventually, lung function depletes to the point that sufferers will need a double lung transplant to survive.
  • The thick mucus also traps bacteria in the airways, and can result in infections and inflammation and often leads to severe lung damage, and eventually, respiratory failure.
  • Approximately 10 million people across the globe are symptomless carriers of the defective CF gene.
Sarah Gibbons

Sarah Gibbons