On a Saturday morning in January, the junior varsity wrestling team from Virginia Beach’s Cox High School straggled into the gym at Hampton High School. The wrestlers tossed their gym bags down in the bleachers and spilled onto the mats to warm up. Amid the sweatshirts, kneepads, headphones and water bottles that peeked out of their bags was one unusual sight: a bright blue contraption that looked something like an oversized asthma inhaler.
That device belongs to 16-year-old Connor Ruddy, who wrestles at 103 pounds for Cox. It is called an acapella, and it goes wherever Connor goes. When he blows into it, it creates vibrations that help clear his airways of the abnormally thick mucus his body produces. Connor also has pills in his bag, digestive enzymes he has to take before he eats. Without them, he couldn’t absorb nutrients from his food.
Connor has cystic fibrosis, which he describes as “a fatal disease that causes your mucus and stuff to be too thick and build up in the body.” Children with CF often have poor growth and severe breathing difficulties. But that day in Hampton, Connor pinned several kids to finish third in a regional tournament.
As director of CHKD’s cystic fibrosis center, pediatric pulmonologist Cynthia Epstein follows about 100 local children with CF. She’s pleased to hear about Connor’s conquests. “We want our patients to have as normal a life with as few limits as possible,” she says.
Connor doesn’t set many limits for himself. “I am 100 percent with the team in all cases,” he says. “I do everything.”
“Everything” consists of three-hour practices, five to six days a week for about four months of the year. Plus, lots of matches and tournaments.
“Connor is the heart and soul of our team,” said Cox coach Corey Williams. “He works so hard, he inspires the other guys.” In fact, Connor’s example is so inspirational that last year, at the end of the 2005-2006 season, Williams started a new tradition at Cox: the Connor Ruddy Award, which will be given every year to the hardest-working wrestler on the team.
“It really means a lot to me,” Connor says about the award. “I worked hard to earn the respect of my coaches and the other guys on the team.”
“Having CF is not fun,” Connor admits. “I mean, I’m 16 and I’m 5 ft. 2 and I weigh 103 pounds. I hear people make comments. But that’s why I like wrestling. I can take all my stress and all my frustrations out in the wrestling room.”
Like so many chronic genetic disorders, cystic fibrosis occurs in a wide range of severity. Many patients are more limited than Connor in the activities they can enjoy. But for all CF patients, the future is less limited today than in the past. “In the 1970s,” says Dr. Epstein, “average life expectancy for a child with CF was 20. Today, it’s 37. By the time Connor is in his 30s, who knows? I firmly believe we will have a cure some day.”
Today, Connor’s goal is to do all he can to keep his body strong and healthy. And he knows he has help in that, not only from his parents, Beth Nance and Joe Ruddy, his wrestling coach and team, but also from his team at CHKD. “The people at CHKD have always looked out for my best interests,” he said. “They’ve always done everything they could to make my life better and easier. I listen to everything they say, and I do what they tell me to do. Because I want to stay healthy.”
Dr. Epstein practices with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.