After months spent battling respiratory illnesses, fighting back intuitive fears and even giving away the family dog and cat, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason says he and his wife, Cheryl, lived the “most difficult day of our lives” when they rushed their son, Gunnar, then 2, to the hospital. “He was having extreme difficulty breathing,” says Boomer. “That day he was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis.”
Determined to Gunnar a “normal” life, the All-Star and his wife quickly formulated a game plan. And recently Boomer and Gunnar shared their family’s story with Celebrity Health Minute.
A frightening opponent
Since his birth on the NFL’s opening day in 1991, Gunnar battled frequent respiratory infection-like symptoms, coughing and wheezing. When he was 16months old, the doctors tested Gunnar for cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease caused by a genetic mutation affecting the body’s digestive and respiratory systems, was not part of routine infant screenings.
“The results were negative,” says Boomer. “Gunnar’s symptoms were attributed to allergies and his allergist told us to get rid of the dog and cat. So even tough it broke our hearts, that’s what we did.”
Gunnar didn’t improve and eight months later, was rushed to the hospital with labored breathing. A second test for CF came back positive for the disease. “We were devastated,” says Boomer. “I was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals and had visited kids in the children’s hospital who had CF, so I knew what it was and how serious it was and I was terrified.”
Despite their fears, Boomer and Cheryl vowed Gunnar would have as “normal” of a childhood as possible.
A normal life
“My parents made it seem like I was a “regular” kid,” says Gunnar, who currently attends Boston College. “They were always on top of my treatments and pills but they also made anything related to my CF seem like it was no big deal, like it was normal. That was the key to my childhood.”
In pursuit of “normal” the Esiasons supported Gunnar’s exploration of life as a “typical” little boy. “He did everything any other kids did. He played little league, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, you name it,” says Boomer. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Gunnar was also the quarterback of his high school football team.
“Meanwhile behind the scenes we worked overtime to maintain all that “normal”. Cheryl was amazing,” says Boomer.
In fact, both father and son credit Cheryl with shielding Gunnar from the family’s fears, including those of younger sister Sydney, about his health. “Cheryl did a great job not letting him know how worried we all were and how much she was really doing to keep him healthy,” says Boomer.
“Along with my equipment or homework, she reminded me to take my hand sanitizer, medicines and pancreatic enzymes with me to practice or school,” says Gunnar. That’s because exposure to cold or flu germs can land a child with CF in the hospital for several weeks; and in some cases be life-threatening because of their body’s inability to fight infections like pneumonia.
“Cheryl couldn’t just wash his uniforms, she had to sanitize them after each use to prevent his exposure to germs,” says Boomer explaining one of the precautions they took with Gunnar.
“Parents of kids with CF also have to monitor their exercise since they lose more salt through their pores than normal, so she silently watched his diet very carefully.”
As he matured, Gunnar’s parents transferred responsibility for his treatment. “We wanted him to be ready to go to college, and someday have a family of his own,” says Boomer. In his early teens, they asked Gunnar’s doctors to spend time with him one-on-one. “It was very important we allow him room to understand his health and how to manage it,” he adds.
Now Gunnar manages his own care, including blending a life of therapeutic breathing treatments and closely monitoring calories, with a life as a college sophomore in a dorm.
The transition to co-ed went smoother than the Esiasons expected. “My college friends are very accepting of my need to do breathing treatments. They’ve made me feel very comfortable,” says Gunnar.
“He’s never hid his treatments or health from his friends. He’s truly embraced who he is,” says Boomer.
Like most patients with CF, Gunnar has to worry about developing diabetes, decreased respiratory function, and even the chance of a lung transplant later in life. And, the Esiasons know doctors say patients with cystic fibrosis typically don’t live past their 30s or 40s. But the family is looking to the future. “I want to someday be a grandparent to both of my children’s kids,” says Boomer who doesn’t play the odds or crunch the disease’s numbers. “We’ll keep working to find a cure.”