It's 7 a.m., and the Rainbow Bridge sits quietly over the Anahulu River. The historic town of Haleiwa is just starting to wake up on a clear Sunday morning. As a Make-A-Wish Hawaii® intern, I'm excited to spend this day with with wish kids who have turned to the ocean for a little healing.
The Mauli Ola Foundation, in partnership with pro surfer Jamie O’Brien, is getting ready to host another Surf Experience Day. This organization launched with the mission to introduce surfing as a natural treatment for people battling cystic fibrosis - a chronic genetic disorder affecting the lungs and digestive system. Since 2007, they've taken nearly 1,300 patients surfing. Numerous Hawaii Wish Kids facing cystic fibrosis reap incredible benefits from these therapeutic surf sessions.
So what can the ocean do for our wish kids? A 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study found that patients with cystic fibrosis who inhaled seawater twice a day "had half as many hospitalizations for lung problems and significantly improved their ability to clear mucus from the lungs."
On this day, tents are in place, surfboards are unloaded and sanitized, and introductions have been made. Today’s surfers are just starting to arrive. One of them is 14-year-old Wish Kid Breana from California. Appearing both nervous and confident, she hungrily eyes the waves percussing against the shore. Cystic Fibrosis had not dampened her enthusiasm for staying active — she is a talented gymnast, swimmer and volleyball player.
A few moments later, Make-A-Wish Hawaii’s Hospitality and Development Manager James Donnelly, longtime supporter of the Mauli Ola Foundation and volunteer surfer, motions to Breana through the salty mist. She grins at her mother Caryn and rushes over to join him.
“It’s the lonely disease,” Wish Mom Caryn tells me as she watches her daughter.
People with cystic fibrosis are more susceptible to cross contamination due to the bacteria harbored in their lungs. Unlike some other serious diseases, patients are not given the opportunity to relate over a common condition.
“You have to separate the person from the disease.”
Her voice trails off as she sees Breana gracefully emerge overhead James; the pair resembling a figure skating duo, Breana “flying” high above James’s shoulders. I excuse myself and let her enjoy her moment of peace from cystic fibrosis.
By 9:30 a.m., most of the children are in the water with their surfers. Some, like Breana, are very comfortable — adopting fun, silly poses or even maneuvering their own boards. Others take a little more caution on their surf boards.The surfers paddle out almost immediately after riding into shore. Volunteers quickly grab any loose boards, wipe them down, and shuttle them back into the water. Everyone cheers as the kids catch a wave.
Equally important as ensuring the kids have fun, the Surf Experience Day emphasizes the importance of ocean safety. There is a “10-foot rule” in place at all times to minimize the chance of cross-contamination. Donning gloves and carrying antibacterial wipes, a physician carefully watches the participants from the beach.
Dr. Bruce Ong, a lively, young doctor and Cystic Fibrosis Director at Tripler Army Medical Center, later gives me some more information. Cystic fibrosis is the most common genetic disease that is also life-threatening, affecting some 30,000 people in the U.S. Treatment is complex and highly individualized. Among treatment options are the hypertonic saline nebulizer and vest compressions - artificial manifestations of the ocean.
“Surfing is therapeutic not only in that it loosens the mucus in the lungs but the exercise helps to clear the congestion as well,” Ong noted.
By the early afternoon, the surf session has transformed into a beach barbeque. It is the end of another successful Surf Experience Day.
The ocean means a lot of things to us in Hawaii, often serving as a place of rejuvenation. But deeper than that, the Mauli Ola Foundation teaches us that the ocean has the potential to heal our body, mind - and even disease.
By Chris Tokeshi, Make-A-Wish Hawaii Medical Outreach Intern
Tokeshi, pictured left, holds a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry from Willamette University. In addition to his internship, he volunteers as a wish granter and hopes to increase community awareness and involvement in the Make-A-Wish mission. He was inspired to help after "seeing how positive energy can transform the body, mind and spirit."