The Breath of Life

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For nearly a decade, the Mauli Ola Foundation has Harnessed the power of the sea to help kids with cystic fibrosis breathe easier.

By Terence Loose

Any lifelong surfer worth his saltwater understands the healing power of the ocean. An afternoon surf can cure everything from eight hours in a cubicle to the relationship blues. But in 2007, James and Charles Dunlop, lifelong surfers and founders of the Orange County genetic testing company Ambry Genetics, took the healing power of surfing to a whole new level.

“My brother showed me an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the benefits of hypertonic saline treatments for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients,” says James, who had grown close to many CF patients and their families through his Ambry Genetics. The treatment used a saline solution to help CF patients breathe more easily. When they read the article, they both had the same crazy idea: “We have to take these kids surfing.”

Their hope was that the salt air environment combined with the movements of surfing would accomplish the same thing the saline treatments did: make the kids’ breathing less labored. They also hoped it would be a lot more fun than spending time in the hospital.

The problem was that surfing is difficult even for an athletic, healthy kid, and the ocean isn’t exactly the first place you think of taking someone with breathing problems. So, the brothers recruited some of the best surfers from Hawaii’s famed North Shore to take the kids surfing. Still, in 2007, as the first group of kids with CF entered the waves at Newport Beach, James Dunlop had no idea if his idea would work or if he was about to rain down an ocean full of misery on a bunch of hopeful kids.

Surfing has saved a lot of lives. It  definitely saved mine. Sharing that with anyone is important, but sharing that  with kids that are less fortunate and knowing I’m going to put a smile on their face and take away their pain, even for  a little while? That’s huge. —Sunny Garcia

There was no misery; it worked. Really, really well. Smiles, hoots and a whole lot of better breathing went down. It didn’t take long for word to spread throughout the community of CF parents and soon, James’ phone was ringing nonstop. A nonprofit, the Mauli Ola Foundation, which is Hawaiian for “breath of life,” was formed and more surf experience days were planned. Pro surfers like Kala Alexander, Sunny Garcia and Kelly Slater got involved and Mauli Ola took off. But more importantly, it was helping CF kids live normal, healthy lives, even if it was for just a day or a few hours at a time.

For nearly a decade, the organization has only gotten bigger and today, Mauli Ola tours the country annually in two rock star-style buses filled with pro surfers eager to give CF kids “surfing treatments” and visit hospitals to deliver support, smiles and swag from surf companies. The nonprofit has taken more than 1,300 CF patients surfing and, the group’s impact has begun to go global, with events across the world in Australia and New Zealand.

Mauli Ola’s wave-riding therapy has become so popular among CF patients and parents that families have been known to drive 10 hours just for a day in the water with Mauli Ola surfers. A few have even moved to a different state to ensure their child could keep surfing.

“Surfing has saved a lot of lives. It definitely saved mine,” says Garcia, 2000 ASP World Tour surfing champion. “Sharing that with anyone is important, but sharing that with kids that are less fortunate and knowing I’m going to put a smile on their face and take away their pain, even for a little while? That’s huge.” (mauliola.org).

– PCM