Healing Surf

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Healing Magic of the Sea

Surfing with an innovative organization allows victims of a debilitating disease to breathe a little easier and simply enjoy the healing magic of the sea.-By Sharael Kolberg

When Caleb Remington feels the saltwater spray tickle his face as he catches a wave, he not only smiles because of the exhilaration of surfing, but also because of the healing properties of the ocean. Caleb suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that causes mucus to build up in the lungs and other organs. When he is surfing, Caleb’s symptoms seem to wash away. Thanks to the Laguna Beach-based Mauli Ola Foundation (MOF), many other cystic fibrosis patients are allowed the opportunity to experience surfing as therapy.

Breathing New Life

The Mauli Ola Foundation, which means “breath of life” in Hawaiian, was formed in 2007 with the goal of utilizing surfing as a restorative treatment for people with cystic fibrosis and other genetic disorders.

James Dunlop, who co-founded the MOF with his brother Charlie, says, “We want to bring to life how the experience of surfing and how the MOF helps people suffering from cystic fibrosis symptoms. Being in the ocean helps patients breathe better by breaking up the mucus that builds up in their lungs. The exercise helps them get an appetite, which is important because CF blocks the pancreas from releasing the proper amount of enzymes to help digest food properly and can cause malnutrition. Surfing also increases their energy level, which is usually low due to lack of oxygen.”

James and Charlie grew up in Laguna Beach, where they have been surfing the local spots since they were kids. Charlie, founder and CEO of Ambry Genetics, has spent his career working in physics, molecular biology and DNA sequencing. When sick patients are born, his company does the DNA sequencing to determine if the patient has CF.

As a surfer, Charlie knew that when he was sick with a head cold, surfing always helped to clear the mucus out of his body. Little did he know that when he decided to Google “surfing and cystic fibrosis,” his life would change forever. The search engine brought up a study in Australia that was funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to find out if inhaling a mist of hypertonic saline would help CF patients. The research concluded that saline alleviated CF symptoms and improved lung function.

Fate was on their side when a young woman suffering from CF, named Emily, agreed to talk to the Ambry lab technicians about CF. While working with Ambry, she convinced James and Charlie to take her surfing at Tressels. Curious about how surfing would affect her symptoms, the guys agreed to take her out. “We took Emily surfing in her early 20s,” Charlie recalls. “At first, she started puking, but after a while she could breath normally.”

Charlie and James were convinced that they had to take more CF kids surfing. “The sport that we grew up doing impacted the first disease state that we ended up studying at Ambry,” Charlie says. Since then, they have taken nearly 900 CF patients surfing at more than 60 Mauli Ola Foundation Surf Experience Days that have taken place in California, Hawaii and Texas.

“Surf Experience Days were created to get kids with CF out into the ocean and experience what natural saline therapies can do for them,” James says. “The kids have a blast and respond very well to the saltwater environment. This lung congestion is what causes them to go to hospitals constantly and leads them to have to take up to 50 pills a day. With saltwater treatments, their hospital visits are cut down in half, leading to a healthier and more fulfilling life with lots of smiles.”

Surfing With Legends

As if catching waves and being healthier isn’t good enough, the MOF has taken it up a notch, convincing surfing legends to be a part of this cause. Among the pro surfers that assist with the Surf Experience Days are Kelly Slater, Bruce Irons, Sunny Garcia, as well as Laguna Beach locals Jeff Booth and Hans Hagen. Not only does the ocean help with the patients’ health, but according to James, surfing (especially with a pro surfer) also makes kids feel like they are cool. “CF patients often feel like outcasts because they have to be separated from other kids to prevent the risk of infection. The psychological aspect of surfing is really uplifting for them,” he says.

After 15 years on the surfing World Championship Tour, Kalani Robb has now taken on a new role as the director of community outreach for the MOF. “We have the best surfers in the world. These are lessons you cannot buy. You can’t pay Kelly (Slater) money to teach a lesson,” Kalani says. “We have the best surfers, lifeguards, surf instructors, scientists, doctors … to make sure everything goes right. We are all aware of infectious control—that the patients need to keep their distance for safety. We are not just some surfer dorks. We know the scenario and use hospital practices. This is something that’s never been done. It’s surfing meets science.”

One patient in particular that had a lasting effect on Kalani was Caleb Remington. When they met, Caleb didn’t live near the ocean, so he had never had a chance to surf. At age 21, Caleb joined Kalani for a two-week surf trip to Hawaii where they surfed two to three times a day. “CF patients have to wear a shake vest and use a nebulizer every day with hot air and saline to break up the mucus in their bodies. Surfing is the same thing,” Kalani explains. The entire time they were in Hawaii, Caleb did not need his shake vest.

“The Mauli Ola Foundation has opened up my life to a whole new meaning of health through surfing,” Caleb says. “It’s really tough to describe how good it feels to surf. If you were to paddle out next to me, you’d think I was coughing up a lung. Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Coughing is a vital exercise all CF patients go through on a daily basis to get the mucus out of the lungs. When I’m surfing, my airways become lubricated and those secretions come out with ease because [of] the high content of saline in the ocean! After surfing, I’m amazed at how insanely good my lungs feel. The activity of surfing, in combination with the saline breathing treatment the ocean provides, is undoubtedly the greatest treatment for CF patients.”

Caleb now enjoys calling Huntington Beach his home and surfs frequently.

Helping Families

CF patients are not the only ones that feel the healing effects of the ocean. The families are also affected in a positive way. Bernadette Antonelli, parent of a CF patient says, “Since our family was introduced to surfing by the Mauli Ola Foundation, our son Connor’s health has improved dramatically. He’s healthier, happier and has had fewer lung infections. Not only has surfing improved his symptoms, but it’s something we do together as a family that has brought us closer together.”

Allowing patients and their families to take a break from the hospital environment can be therapeutic on its own. James recalls a 7-year-old CF patient named Taylor that stopped taking her meds and didn’t want to go to school anymore. “After surfing with the MOF, her parents said that she turned a corner and that we gave her hope.”

It can be challenging to parent a child with CF. The MOF Surf Experience Days not only give the kids a chance to bond, but also the parents. “When the kids are out surfing, it’s like a parent support group on the beach,” James says. “They are exchanging e-mails and discussing the difficulties of having a child with CF, as well as the successes.”

Charlie adds, “Taking CF patients surfing was just an idea, but getting to know these families and their ups and downs has touched me, big time. These families are suffering, but are the nicest people you could meet. It makes you ashamed of your petty concerns. I wish I could help more.”

Taking it Inland

So, what about kids that don’t live anywhere near the ocean? They get a personal visit from a pro surfer to lift their spirits and give them hope. In 2011, the MOF expanded its program to help patients affected with cancer and alpha 1-antitrypsin. Members of the MOF travel across the county visiting kids that are sick in the hospital. “For surfers to see the other side has helped them because they’ve been lucky enough to live a healthy life,” Charlie says.

“Using my skills to improve kids’ lives, rather than selling surfing supplies, is the perfect thing to me,” Kalani admits. “Being a pro surfer, everything is given to you. It’s time for me to give instead of taking all the time. The Mauli Ola Foundation has enriched my life on many levels. I’m really giving back because there is not a cure. It’s a sport we love and it’s helping patients.”

Laguna Beach local Hans Hagen has also been touched by the work that the MOF is doing. “Volunteering time to the MOF has been a life changing experience,” Hans says. “It makes me so happy to think that something as simple as surfing could help people deal with such major obstacles with their health.”

Since there is no cure for CF, the MOF’s goal is to allow CF patients to live a comfortable and fulfilling life. “We have seen the positive impact that surfing has had on CF patients, but we have also gone to six funerals,” James says. Unfortunately, Emily, who was their inspiration, passed away from CF complications, but prior to her passing, James and Charlie took her on a surf trip to Hawaii that James feels was the best time of her life. LBM

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