By Matt Williams
---- — DANVERS — Just breathe: easy advice for calming the nerves before a big game, a speech or a test.
For some 30,000 Americans battling cystic fibrosis, the phrase means so much more.
‘Just breathe’ will be one of the slogans when the Danvers High girls soccer team hosts a Cyctic Fibrosis Awareness Night tomorrow at Dr. Deering Stadium. The Falcons face Chelmsford at 6:30 p.m., and will be playing for one of their own: senior Nicole Harrison.
Diagnosed with CF at age five, Harrison grew up playing soccer. She shared the field with most of Danvers’ 10 seniors throughout youth soccer up until a few years ago, when the disease progressed to the point that she could no longer play.
Harrison, 17, wasn’t about to let her condition keep her away from the game, or the people, she’d grown to love. She’s served one of the Falcons’ team managers for the last two-plus seasons.
“They’ve always been there for me, and this is one of the ways I can be there for them,” Harrison said of her teammates.
Over the summer, Danvers’ seniors decided they wanted to honor their friend. Inspired by the team’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness game, they went to head coach Jimmy Hinchion and said, ‘We should do something for cystic fibrosis. For Nicole.’
“It made me choke up immediately,” Hinchion said. “What an unbelievable gesture; we have a big senior group and something like this says a lot about their character. It’s a tight class.”
There will be a bake sale tomorrow night, and the team is selling blue T-shirts for $10 each to promote CF awareness with the proceeds going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The front says ‘Just breathe’ in yellow and has a picture of a rose (“Kids can’t say cystic fibrosis, so they tell them to say 65 roses,” Harrison explains). On the back is a Falcon and a message about fighting cystic fibrosis.
“It was going to be a surprise, and when I found out I was really excited. It’s so nice of them to put this together,” Harrison said. “I’ve always been active in promoting awareness for CF, and this could be a big way to get the word out.”
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs, though it also impacts the pancreas and liver. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, there are about 70,000 afflicted patients worldwide; the CFF explains the disease as a defective gene that causes the body to produce mucus that can clog the lungs, leading to difficulty breathing and infection.
Harrison lost a cousin to CF nearly 13 years ago, and her father Brian holds an annual Roof Top Retreat in Danvers to raise money for the CFF. Her daily routine includes taking antibiotics every eight hours to help stave off possible infections, and using a nebulizer which sends medicine directly to the lungs like an inhaler, among other things.
“It’s a pretty normal life,” she said. “I might have a few more bumps in the road than most, but I get through them.”
As a kid, Harrison was very active. Her dad coached many of her friends growing up in youth soccer, and she was always one of the most energetic students in Hinchion’s elementary school gym classes.
“I’ve known Nicole since she was five years old and she’s always had energy,” the coach said. “She’s always been positive.”
Today, Harrison can juggle a soccer ball with the best of them. Her CF has advanced to the point that the marathon-like running that’s part of soccer made playing the game impossible about two years ago. She had played as a freshman, but lost the majority of that season and the following one to a broken ankle that required surgery.
“Sophomore year was hard. There were times I felt crushed,” she said. “It started to get a little easier last year, and everything has been fun this year.”
Some athletes that can’t play want to get as far away from the games as possible; the reminders of what they had are too painful. There’s little doubt that what keeps Harrison connected to the pitch is the bond she shares with her classmates, teammates and friends.
“Nic was always a fantastic player. It’s unfortunate the way it turned out, but she loves being here because all her friends are here,” said Hinchion.
“She’s as big a part of this team as anybody. She inspires the girls.”
Doctors and researchers are always looking to develop new treatments that might make life easier for patients. Spreading awareness and raising funds help that cause.
Like anybody, Harrison has some tough days. She’s hoping to get back to horseback riding, another favorite hobby, in the near future. When she’s down, it’s her family and their dog, a maltese, that pick her up.
“I feel a little tired sometimes,” she said. “Being around soccer is good for my mental health. I’m really proud of a lot of the girls in my class, to see them out there starting and playing well.”
There might be times in a soccer game when the players are tired and winded. As Harrison watches, and helps, from the sideline, she knows it’s the support from her family and teammates that will help her breathe a little easier.
To learn more about CF, visit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at http://www.cff.org.