Back in N.Y., Esiason refuels Jets, resolved to fight son's cystic fibrosis


August 18, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

Each morning and afternoon, for about an hour, 2-year-old Gunnar Esiason must take a treatment of steam mist with drugs to help open his lungs.

Then his father, Boomer, or his mother, Cheryl, does chest physical therapy by patting him on his side and back.

Gunnar has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease characterized by mucous secretions through the body that affect the respiratory and digestive systems. The average life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients is 29.

"You try to keep his mind off the therapy, because sometimes he gets sore," said Cheryl Esiason, a native of Westminster. "Quite often, we run out of the rhymes, then it's time for Christmas carols. He loves the carols. It's a great bonding session."

Said Boomer Esiason: "You are doing something that is going to prolong his life, that is going to save his life, and you're doing it because you love to do it. It's a very rewarding and valuable time for all of us."

Concern for Gunnar's condition has taken Esiason's mind off the coming NFL season. In March, Esiason, a former University of Maryland star, was traded by the Cincinnati Bengals to the New York Jets, a move that created a lot of questions:

* Can Esiason, a nine-year veteran and one of the league's big stars in the late 1980s, revive his career?

* Can he help save the job of his longtime friend, Jets coach Bruce Coslet?

* Does his left arm, worth $3 million a year, still have enough strength and accuracy to throw downfield?

* How will Esiason, from East Islip, N.Y., on Long Island, cope with the pressure of being the hometown hero?

"I'm not worried about the New York media or the fans," said Esiason, who also has an 11 1/2 -month-old daughter, Sydney, who has tested neg- ative for CF. "Bruce Coslet and [Jets general manager] Dick Steinberg have been very generous to us. They have helped me find doctors and hospitals, so all I have to do is play.

"Playing will be like therapy to me. It's what I've lived for and what I want and what I do. There will be no juggling of a schedule, though. No. 1 on the docket is my son. There is no more fantasy land."

Esiason said he got a "real taste of reality" May 6.

That's when the doctor walked into his son's hospital room in Cincinnati accompanied by a pulmonary nurse, and told Boomer and Cheryl that Gunnar's test for cystic fibrosis was positive.

"You never prepare for something like this," said Esiason. "We were there for about 45 minutes, the three of us, but Gunnar was asleep. In that time span, you go through depression, sadness, anger . . . "

Cheryl said Boomer thought briefly about quitting football.

"Boomer was asking so many questions, like, 'What I should do? Should I stop playing?' " said Cheryl Esiason. "Gunnar was lying there asleep like a little angel. I think Boomer quit until Gunnar woke up, and said, 'Hi, Mom and Dad.' That's when we started restructuring our lives, because Gunnar was so innocent and full of hope."

Boomer and Cheryl Esiason were carriers of CF, but neither of them knew it. There was no history of the disease on either side of the family.

One of 20 Americans carries the CF gene, and the frequency of CF is one in 2,000 births. Nearly 30,000 children and young adults in the United States have the disease, according to Cystic Fibrosis Foundation officials in Baltimore.

When Gunnar was about 6 months old, he started developing a cough and wheezing. About a month later, a chest X-ray and a test for CF were negative.

Gunnar was treated for asthma.

"The CF test was done at a local hospital in Kentucky, but it was eight years outdated," said Cheryl Esiason. "It's not even used at a CF hospital now. But a lot more is known about CF now around the country than years ago."

And that's one reason the Esiasons are so positive.

Medical advances in the field -- such as gene therapy to reduce lung complications -- have increased the average life expectancy nearly 10 years per decade since 1960, according to Dr. Beryl Rosenstein, director of the CF center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

On Aug. 10, the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee unanimously approved the drug dornase alfa, which was found to reduce infections and improve the quality of life for stable CF patients over age 5. It was the first new agent drug for CF in 30 years, said Rosenstein.

Since the diagnosis in May, Gunnar has been taking enzymes with his food. He has gained 3 1/2 pounds and grown 2 inches in that time.

He swims three times a week. He likes baseball, basketball and football. He loves to hook up trains, feed animals and watch sports on television with his father.

"A lot of progress has been made in finding a cure," said Rosenstein. "The average life span may be around 30 for those already with the disease, but a child born with CF today can expect to live to be about 40. I think we're about five or six years away from finding a cure."

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