Putting cystic fibrosis in the crosshairs

Siblings Michael and Emily Plummer use archery to help combat their disease—and Michael may fight his way to the Olympics.

A warm breeze blew across the range at the West Michigan Archery Center, as siblings Micheal and Emily Plummer drew back the strings on their bows and watched their arrows fly.

In a physical sense, the brother and sister practiced archery.

In an emotional sense, Micheal and Emily slay a dragon that has reared its ugly head for much of their life—the cystic fibrosis dragon that has stomped on their lungs and often fled with their breath.

Micheal, 20, is beating the enemy. He said cystic fibrosis doesn’t limit him at all. He’s hit so many targets in this proverbial dragon-slaying mission that he’s currently ranked 10th in the nation in archery. He’s gunning for the 2020 Olympics.

Emily, 18, isn’t competing for the Olympics. She’s competing only against herself, her cystic fibrosis and her juvenile arthritis.

“I’ve had a pretty rough go of it the past three or four years with my lungs,” Emily said. “But I think I’m getting on the other side of it.”

Emily said she and Micheal share a special bond not just as siblings, but as siblings with cystic fibrosis.

“It’s very helpful,” she said. “It’s somebody who understands what you are going through. You can’t understand it if you don’t go through it yourself. He’s kind of like the best friend I have.”

She had a pink quiver, stocked with pink and purple arrows, strapped around her waist. She said she loves this sport because it doesn’t stress her lungs or her muscles.

“You don’t have to be the biggest or tallest person,” Emily said. “It’s good cardio and it helps you open your chest up more because you’re using your back muscles.”

Targeting the disease

Emily and Micheal’s parents recognize the importance of this sport to their children’s health and well-being. They drive from Midland, Michigan, to Plainfield Charter Township every Wednesday so Michael can train with 1984 archery Olympian Glenn Meyers, head coach at the Michigan Archery Center.

There’s a bonus. Meyers works as a respiratory therapist with Spectrum Health.

“He can kind of keep an eye on their lung function,” said Micheal and Emily’s dad, Steve, who holds several state archery records.

When Micheal competed in China recently, Meyers performed manual percussion on him to help clear mucus from his lungs.

Each time they travel, like the trip to an archery competition in Arizona in late winter, both Emily and Micheal have two suitcases full of medical equipment.

They’ve carried the load of cystic fibrosis for a long time. But they’re not bending or breaking.

On a recent, breezy Wednesday, Micheal focused on striking a target from 70 meters away, the same distance used in Olympic games.

Emily shot from 20 meters.

After shooting, Micheal and Meyers placed their Olympic-style recurve bows on stands and walked across the field to retrieve their arrows, their quivers clinking and clanking with each step.

Micheal would shoot close to 400 arrows that day, aiming not only for the target, but also for the Olympics.

“It’s pretty exciting to think about,” Micheal said. “It’s what keeps me going every day, to spend 10 hours on the archery range. It’s been a dream of mine for a lot of years. I push hard, trying to make that next step, with the ultimate goal of being in the Olympics. It’s a great motivation.”

There’s another thing about archery the Plummers love. They get to travel together to competitions all across the country and sometimes abroad.

‘I want to teach them to live’

“We have great memories of travel,” said Emily and Micheal’s mom, Deb. “We learned early on, when you have a child with a chronic illness, because you’re so wrapped up dealing with the disease, you forget how to live. Cystic fibrosis does a great job teaching them to be ill. I want to teach them to live.”

There are setbacks, she knows. With a disease such as this there always are.

They know the routine. The disease has had this family in its crosshairs since Micheal was 2 months old.

“I had this sixth sense almost that something was not right when I was pregnant with Micheal,” Deb said. “I just felt like something was wrong. I kept asking my obstetrician specifically about CF. I have an older cousin whose daughter has CF.”

A week after Micheal’s birth, Deb noticed he had breathing problems. She thought he tasted salty.

She took him to a pediatrician in Midland.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Deb said.

At 7 weeks old, Micheal developed pneumonia and spent a week in a local hospital.

“After that, we sweat-tested him and it came back positive,” Deb said. “I was in shock, but it was almost like a relief because I knew something was wrong. As a mom, I think we know when something is wrong with our kids.”

When Emily arrived in this world on Sept. 17, 1998, Deb and Steve already knew their daughter had cystic fibrosis. Deb had a test done at 25 weeks into the pregnancy.

“I waited until the last possible minute to have the testing done,” Deb said. “But it didn’t matter if it came back positive or negative. Our plan was not to terminate the pregnancy. My husband and I just wanted to know so we could come up with the safest birth plan and do what was best for her. She made our family complete.”

‘We’ve had a good life’

The kids do two 30-minute breathing treatments with their vests plus two additional 30-minute breathing treatment sessions every day. That’s when they’re healthy. With any illness, they do this four times a day. They also take enzyme pills with every meal.

It may seem inconvenient, but Deb said she wouldn’t have it any other way. The things the family has learned together, conquered together, strived for together, she wouldn’t trade for anything.

In a sense, the disease has become a blessing for the Plummers, leading them to a way of life they never would have chosen on their own.

“We’ve had a good life,” Deb said. “To go back and do it over again, I wouldn’t ask for kids without this disease. There’s a lot of blessings and silver linings that come with it, too. You just have to look for them. When they’re healthy, we’re moving forward. You just have to do the best you can.”

Deb said she and her family are excited about what the future holds.

“The future for CF is very promising,” she said. “I think this generation is key to living a normal lifespan and not just living it, but living it well. The key is taking care of yourself.”

As Emily moved her target another 10 meters out, Deb’s eyes brimmed with pride.

“It makes me so happy to see them doing so well and having fun,” she said. “I am very proud of them. I think you can end up getting bitter and angry when you live with a chronic illness. Sometimes it’s just better to be kind. They’ve both learned that. They have a great compassion for people.”

Dr. Stephen Fitch, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group pulmonary specialist who helped transition the children to the Spectrum Health Adult CF Clinic, said because of its genetic nature, it’s common for siblings to have cystic fibrosis, but also common for the disease to progress differently.

“Micheal and Emily are delightful and are doing reasonably well,” Dr. Fitch said. “They are interesting, in that they demonstrate how the disease can affect two different people, with the same genetics, somewhat differently. They have grown up in the same environment, with the same care and treatment, but have different degrees of effect from the disease.”

Although Micheal does not have as much progression as Emily, Dr. Fitch said both require daily attention to their care and multiple treatments.

Dr. Fitch said he thinks archery provides a solid target for one-upping the disease.

“Micheal’s archery involvement has been quite remarkable, especially recently, as he has traveled all over the world,” Dr. Fitch said. “This requires quite a bit of planning and attention to how to get his care done. It helps that his archery coach is one of our very own respiratory therapists, a former Olympic team member himself.”

Dr. Fitch believes the sport helps the entire Plummer family.

“Having a unique talent like this is very useful,” Dr. Fitch said. “It gives a way for a patient to distinguish themselves in a more ‘typical’ way instead of just having CF. The discipline that it takes to excel at something like this is often aided by years of having to manage the treatments of a complex, multi-system disease.”

Dr. Fitch said the family pulling together has brought strength to the children.

“Micheal and Emily are great examples of how a family has to work together to get kids to adulthood,” the doctor said. “Their parents have done a ton, but have also empowered them to take care of themselves so they are better prepared to make the transition to adulthood.”

Learn more about the nationally-ranked care for children with cystic fibrosis at our website or contact the cystic fibrosis program at 616.267.8533.

 

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