Henry Chastain has never allowed cystic fibrosis to define him, but there have been times during his freshman season on the Maryland men’s lacrosse team when it has gotten the best of him. On those days, when he tries to push through practice despite extreme shortness of breath caused by the genetic disorder, his coaches must pull him off the field and force him to rest.
In those moments, there is only one other person on the field who can fully comprehend what Chastain is going through. Maryland’s student manager, Tommy Brophy, might not play for the Terrapins, but he has lived with cystic fibrosis since he was six months old. He shares much of the same daily routine as Chastain, using round-the-clock treatment to loosen mucous in the lungs and other organs, perpetually fighting an incurable condition in which life expectancy in the United States is about 40 years.
But cystic fibrosis offers another cruel layer: People with the disease are highly vulnerable to bacteria in their lungs and thus can easily cross-infect each other if they interact face to face. Chastain and Brophy have rarely been closer than 15 feet to each other during their first year in the program together, forced to communicate either by text or with raised voices to compensate for the distance they must keep from each other.
That has created an uncommon logistical wrinkle for the Terrapins (12-3), who will enter the NCAA tournament that begins this weekend as the No. 1 overall seed. It has created an unlikely bond between two college students who never physically cross paths.
“Other kids, they understand that you have CF, but they don’t know what it’s like,” Chastain said. “So it’s cool to talk to someone about it, through text or down the hallway. I’ll be yelling at him, ‘Yo, Brophy!”
When Chastain and Brophy are on the sideline together during home games and practices, they can usually be found at opposite ends. When the team travels to away games by bus, Brophy and the rest of the managers follow in a van. When the team flies, Chastain goes and Brophy stays in College Park, because a plane is a high-risk incubator.
As Brophy was preparing the lockers for the players in the hallway of the team’s facility one afternoon in March, he quickly moved out of the way when he saw Chastain and team walking through the corridor to the film room.
“Everything that we do, we have to do with an extra level of cleanliness,” said Brophy, who is a junior.
This is a first-time experience for Chastain, who starred in high school at Gonzaga in the District and never had to deal with the threat of cross-infection. He has never had a major health scare because of the disease, which was diagnosed in his infancy.
Brophy, who is from New Jersey, also has a little brother with cystic fibrosis. Interaction between the brothers was unavoidable, Brophy said, but doctors ordered him to stay away from other patients with the disorder. His freshman year he was hospitalized with complications from the condition, which caused Brophy to begin taking his health more seriously.
Chastain was finishing his senior year at Gonzaga last spring when he began to text with Brophy, who was in his second year as a manager at Maryland. By that point, Maryland’s staff was already bracing to have both on the team this year. The team rallied around Brophy’s annual efforts to organize the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Great Strides Walk on campus, which earlier this month raised more than $30,000 for research. Chastain began attending the event last year when he was still in high school, even though he had to keep his distance from Brophy.
That has only seemed to bring them closer. They text often about life and lacrosse, and sometimes their histories with saline treatments and lung tightness will come up.
“For 25 years, no player at a program I’ve been associated with has had cystic fibrosis. So to have two at the same time has been interesting,” Maryland Coach John Tillman said. “In a certain way, it’s tricky because we have to make sure we’re careful about how close they come to each other. Yet in other ways, it’s great because you have some people that are very passionate about raising awareness.”
Chastain has played in just one game this season and is still learning how to pace himself in a demanding program. He often battles shortness of breath and fatigue. He wears a vibrating therapy vest for 20 minutes twice a day to help break up the mucous in his lungs, and he takes an assortment of vitamins and medication throughout the day.
“It affects your social life to the point where you can’t go out all the time … you just have to be safe,” Chastain said.
Even when they’re away from the team, they have been reminded of their relationship. On a Wednesday afternoon in late March, Brophy was waiting for a bus on campus when he saw Chastain from a distance, walking down the sidewalk. Brophy got Chastain’s attention, and they walked to about 10 feet of each other to hold a conversation. A group of other students were waiting for the bus too, and Brophy wondered how crazy they might think he is.
“Most people would go up to each other to say what’s up and give a handshake … not going over to each other probably looks weird to other people,” he said. “But for us, it’s just natural.”