Cystic Fibrosis: The invisible disease
WORTHINGTON — Brittany Olson, 24, of Worthington has been living with cystic fibrosis all of her life.
Olson was recognized this month by a national cystic fibrosis foundation for her strength, determination and tenacity in persevering through this disease. She was named CFer of the Month by the More Than Just Me Foundation (MTJM), a national organization formed for the exclusive purpose of charitable and educational means.
Olson started following MTJM when its founder, Tommy Danger, ran from Oregon to Florida to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis. Her family and friends knew that she has been involved in the foundation and not only decided to also get involved, but to honor her in a big way.
“In order to be the CFer of the Month, someone has to nominate you, and I knew that my mom, sister and best friend nominated me, but I had no idea that I was actually picked,” Olson said. “My family and friends planned a surprise party for me to announce it, and when they told me I was picked. I couldn’t believe it,” she added.
Olson is featured on the foundation’s website, www.mtjm.org, for the entire month of June, sharing her story and history dealing with cystic fibrosis.
Olson has dealt with cystic fibrosis from an early age, but despite it all considers herself lucky.
“When I was born, I showed the common first sign of the disease by having a blockage, so I was airlifted to another hospital to have surgery,” she said. “Luckily for me, I didn’t need the surgery like so many others who have CF do when they’re born.”
Today, daily medications and hospital visits are routine occurrences for Olson, but through it all she continues to overcome.
“I take daily medication for my lungs to clear up bacteria and my pancreas to help me digest food, and due to the bacteria that gets in my lungs I sometimes get infections,” she said.
“Because of the infections, I normally have to stay in the hospital three or four times a year.”
While Olson considers these struggles just a part of her life, she stated that last year was “the worst year.”
“Last year I found out that I had eight kidney stones, so I went through numerous hospitalizations and surgeries to remove them and had actually lost 20 pounds due to that,” Olson explained. “In February 2013, I had to have a gastrostomy tube (G-tube) put in me to help me gain the weight back.”
She points to June 2013, when she had only 23 percent lung function, as her lowest point.
“I visited a transplant center in North Carolina in August 2013, because somewhere down the road I will eventually need a lung transplant,” Olson said.
Through the turmoil of that year, Olson found a silver lining when she got engaged to her now-husband, Joshua Olson. They were married May 3.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Pam Westendorf, Olson’s mother. “She overcame a lot in that year by going through all of that and planning a wedding. She has always been a determined person, and she was going to plan the wedding that she has always wanted.”
Olson has now gained all the weight back that she had lost and improved her lung function to 27 percent. She continues to inspire many people who hear her story, including her sister Meghan, 22, who also battles cystic fibrosis.
“There are different types and severities with this disease,” Olson said. “The main difference between my sister and I is that along with cystic fibrosis, I also have diabetes (and) my sister does not.”
Olson has shared her story with many other people battling cystic fibrosis. However, she has never talked to most of them in person.
“With cystic fibrosis, a lot of what makes us sick is transmitted bacteria, and we all have different ‘bugs,’” Olson said. “Unlike most other disease foundations, we can’t have a public gathering because the bacteria is so easily spread and we could get each other sick.”
Even though there are many runs or walks to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis, Olson explained, no one with the actual disease is allowed to participate because of the risk of infecting each other with new bacterias.
“The Internet is a great resource for us,” she added. “A lot of our support groups and interactions are through online.”
Olson graduated from Worthington High School and attended Minnesota West Community and Technical College before transferring to South Central College in Mankato, where she graduated as a pharmacy technician with a 4.0 GPA. She is unable to work due to her low lung function, but Olson (who loves various sports, hunting and fishing) doesn’t let the disease stop her from continuing with any of her passions.
“I really love to hunt. I’ve even gone hunting with an IV in my coat,” she laughed.
Olson and her family have often referred to cystic fibrosis as the “invisible disease,” as there are really no physical symptoms.
“Mainly what people notice is the coughing. A lot of people think that I have a cold or something, but it’s just my lungs clearing up any bacteria,” Olson said. “The other most obvious thing is that I’m small, but other than that most people do not realize that I have cystic fibrosis.”
After her recent marriage, Olson states that now she is just taking it easy and enjoying married life.
“I’m honored for this recognition, and I just thank my family and friends for all of their support,” she said.
For more information on cystic fibrosis, or to view Olson’s CFer of the month feature, visit www.mtjm.org.
Daily Globe Reporter Erin Trester may be reached at 376-7322.