Surfing offers kids with cystic fibrosis ‘breath of life’

Krysta Fauria
Associated Press

San Clemente, Calif. – — For three of Rob and Paulette Montelone’s five kids, spending the summer surfing is more than just a fun activity. It could also extend their lives.

The Montelone siblings are part of a growing number of people with cystic fibrosis who are taking advantage of the health benefits that come with surfing.

Since researchers realized that the salt water in the ocean helps clear out the thick mucus that builds up in patients’ lungs, organizations have started around the world that teach those with the disease how to “hang 10.”

“We have found the silver lining to it all and that has been through surfing,” Paulette Montelone said on a recent summer day while her five children were out in the water at San Onofre State Beach in Southern California.

“It’s helping them breathe better … but it’s also helping us, as a family, enjoy something together.”

The average lifespan for someone with cystic fibrosis is about 40, but many patients don’t make it past their teens. The genetic condition, which must be inherited from both parents, affects 70,000 people worldwide.

There is no known cure, but about a decade ago, doctors in Australia noticed that patients who surfed seemed to breathe easier. Subsequent studies resulted in new saline treatments for patients in 2006 based on the salt water discovery.

“They saw a big difference in a lot of things: in pulmonary function, in need for hospitalization, in how well they felt,” said Dr. Bruce Nickerson, a pulmonary specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

The discovery also led to the development of organizations like the Mauli Ola Foundation, which means “breath of life” in Hawaiian. The organization pairs patients with professional surfers, including Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia.

The Montelone family found Mauli Ola a year after three of the kids were diagnosed. They learned to surf — a natural treatment that helps lubricate the patients’ airways.

Known as the “Brady bunch” of the cystic fibrosis world, the Montelones have a 12-year-old son named Michael and two sets of twins — Grace and Gavin, 8, and Brooke and Brian, 10.

As Gavin laughed with his parents while struggling to squeeze into his wetsuit, he seemed like a normal kid, not someone who had been hospitalized two weeks before.

His twin sister, Grace watched the happy moment and grinned.

“The treatment isn’t what bugs me. It’s how I hear stories of how kids die from CF at a young age,” she said.

“It makes me feel scared about my brothers and sisters — but when I go surfing, I forget about all of that,” she said.