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A Friend in Need

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Summer 2001
a friend in need
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DOCTORS DIAGNOSED Danny's cystic fibrosis when he was 3, and told his parents that he probably wouldn't live past his teens. Throughout his life, infections and illnesses like pneumonia would be constant companions, leaving damaged, scarred lung tissue in their wake. The disease also would affect his digestive system, but less severely.

"Though great improvements have been made both in the quality of life and in life expectancy, there's no question that this disease is associated with a shortened life span," says Julia Greenwald M.S.W. '83, Danny's social worker in the cystic fibrosis center at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

Ten or 15 years ago, the life expectancy of someone with CF was 15 years. While there are a smattering of survivors in their 50s and 60s, and one woman has made it into her 70s, the average life span today is about 32.

Danny recalls the harshness of growing up with CF. "It was rough as a kid," he says. "I just told people I had asthma 'cause at that age you don't want to be different, you're self-conscious about what everyone thinks."

Despite the frequent illnesses, the difficulty breathing, the regular hospitalizations and treatments, Danny led as normal a life as possible. He dated in high school, worked, played sports and went to the prom.

And he didn't allow the disease to stop him from setting high goals for himself. The son of laborers, he determined that he would be the first in his family -- and one of the few from his predominantly Mexican neighborhood of La Puente -- to attend college.

"College was something I wanted because I didn't want to work the way my father worked," Danny says. "I was told by teachers that, because I was Mexican, I wouldn't make it to UCLA -- we're not meant to go there. That was motivation for me."

He did make it to UCLA, where he met Claudia Perez '96, and where he was inspired by one of his professors, Daniel Solorzano, to become a teacher. Today, Danny draws upon his own background to inspire others to better themselves with a college education, and to be proud of their culture.

But just getting through the day was often a trial. To conserve his breath, he learned every shortcut to make the uphill walks easier. Sometimes he was just too tired and skipped classes altogether. When he would get sick during finals he'd have to explain himself to his professors.

CF continued to take its toll after he graduated and started his career as a teacher. Sometimes he was so exhausted he didn't want to get out of bed. "But I have a family," he says. "It's hard to stay in bed when you have kids. Without my wife it would have been too difficult. She's been strong when I most needed her to be strong. Looking after the kids, working, she's even taking classes at night."

The slide continued, and when he got sick the last time, his lung capacity had dwindled to 27 percent of normal. Worse, the hospital was out of antibiotics to effectively fight his infections; he had over the years of his illness developed immunity to all of them.

"The thing with CF is that once you start to decline, it's very rapid," explains Jeffrey Riker, Danny's pulmonologist and the medical director of the adult CF program at Long Beach Memorial. "He was having increasingly regular hospitalizations. He was on oxygen all the time. He was going downhill fast."

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