At first, it was almost a joke to the Tiernan family. Their six-month-old baby girl Murielle was a seemingly healthy 20 pounds with rosy cheeks and a mound of hair. Yet, every time her mother kissed her on the forehead or cheek, she tasted salty. Just before friends came over, Kathy bathed Murielle, fearful that they would think she hadn’t been washed.
One night, however, a science teacher friend of Ed Tiernan, a social studies teacher at Herndon High, suggested there may be more to it. Kathy Tiernan took her daughter to the doctor. She learned that salty skin was a symptom of cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease caused by a defective gene that builds a thick, sticky mucus that can clog the lungs and pancreas. Murielle was tested for it.
“The kids that were going in were sickly, small,” Kathy said. “Murielle is just sitting up, six months old, ready to run. But she failed the sweat test and came back positive and, of course, changed our lives.”
Seventeen years later, Murielle is an elite soccer player, an All-Met whose size, ability and style of play would never suggest a disease that can affect her breathing. The 5-foot-10 junior forward and Virginia Tech recruit is a dangerous blend of speed and strength, a gifted goal scorer and passer who has notched 51 goals, 42 assists and a 50-6-5 record in nearly three full seasons at Stone Bridge. She also helped the Bulldogs win the 2010 Virginia AAA state title.
None who watch her terrorize opponents on the soccer field would ever know that, twice a day, Murielle uses a nebulizer, a machine that delivers medicine to her lungs, and that she lies on her mother’s lap so that she can pound her chest and back for 20 minutes every morning to loosen the mucus in her lungs.
Few see the rings of salt that collect around her eyes after she plays, especially after games on warm days, a byproduct of so much lost fluid.
“If you look at her, you wouldn’t think she has that type of ailment,” Stone Bridge Coach Joan Windows said. “She is so strong and so powerful.”
The first time others at her high school saw anything amiss with Murielle was May 27, 2010 — the second round of region playoffs of her freshman season in a game against Lee. On a hot, humid evening in Ashburn, Murielle made a run down the sideline within the game’s first 10 minutes. Then she stopped and immediately told the referee she had to leave the game.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Murielle is lucky. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, nearly 30,000 Americans have the disease, while 10 million more carry the defective gene but don’t show symptoms. Compared with other cases of cystic fibrosis where people struggle to breathe regularly, visit the hospital often and their quality of life is affected, her case is mild.
From an early age, her parents have vigilantly watched her treatments. When they first started her daily chest pounding, her parents cried as baby Murielle cried. But it soon became a fact of life. They watched over her diet and acted quickly on any sign of a cold or pulmonary infection, because those can be worse for her, and promoted sports and exercise.
“She’s got these two bad genes that we gave her,” Ed Tiernan said, “but all the other ones are more than making up for it.”
“She was blessed with gigantic lungs,” said her longtime doctor, James Clayton.
For all her strengths on the soccer field, hot and humid weather is her weakness. The first few minutes of that game against Lee in 2010 were agony.
When she wears down in warm weather, she feels thirsty, dizzy, her mouth dries up and sometimes stomach cramps kick in.
“I’m tired and don’t have motivation to run because I can’t run,” she said.
Her coach had seen Murielle’s physical paperwork before the season but, at that moment, didn’t realize a symptom of her cystic fibrosis had flared up. After five minutes of recovering and drinking water, Murielle re-entered the game. But her coach rested her a couple of more times.
On her club soccer team, Murielle had dealt often with the effects of her cystic fibrosis. During yearly summer camps in the oppressive heat of August, she could withstand only so much of the week-long training. She would train in the morning, rest and watch her teammates during the afternoon sessions before rejoing them for the evening games.
Now, Windows and Murielle have a system. When she feels short of breath, she signals to Windows that she needs to come out of the game. Because Murielle is such a fierce competitior, Windows will also look to teammate Ashley Herndon, also an All-Met forward last spring and a close friend of Murielle, to tell her when Murielle needs a break.
“Usually after the first part of the first half, I know she’s okay and we hopefully don’t have to deal with it,” Windows said.
At least two other occasions during that run to a state title, Windows rested Murielle during playoff games, including the state championship game in the 99-degree weather of early June, a 4-0 win over Cosby in which she had an assist. Because of milder temperatures last season and so far this season, it hasn’t been an issue. But as Stone Bridge advances in this season’s playoffs, with a game against Deep Run in the AAA quarterfinals on Tuesday, the weather could be a factor.
Murielle’s parents considered colleges in the Northeast and in milder climates. They visited Boston University, Michigan, Pepperdine and Syracuse and also considered Penn State, Virginia and William & Mary. College coaches knew of Murielle’s cystic fibrosis through her club soccer coach, Paul Ellis, and Ed Tiernan talked with them about it.
Ultimately, Murielle chose Virginia Tech because it wasn’t as far from home and she wanted to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. When she arrives in Blacksburg for pre-season training, Virginia Tech coaches and trainers will keep an extra eye on Murielle, possibly granting her exceptions on her fitness tests.
The few times people knew of Murielle’s disease was through her family’s long involvement with fundraising for cystic fibrosis research. Every year they take part in the Great Strides National Walk Event, held two weeks ago. Ed Tiernan, a former boys’ basketball coach at Herndon, Lee and Stuart, coordinated school-wide coin drives before games.
They organized raffles, alumni basketball games and recently held spaghetti dinners for 500 people at a Herndon church. One year, they raised $30,000. Her parents display Murielle as the poster child of a person who can succeed despite cystic fibrosis. Murielle’s brother, Eddie, a senior at Stone Bridge who doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, is considering a career in biology to help study the disease.
“The people that have come to all of these things are always related to the teams that Murielle has been on, from her club teams to her high school team,” Kathy Tiernan said. “It’s just a great community. It’s been really fantastic support.”
Unlike many who deal with asthma, Murielle won’t grow out of the cystic fibrosis; the ailment is genetic. And while she has done well so far thanks to good nutrition, watchful medical care and a little luck, Clayton said, there’s uncertainty about how the rarer, but milder, gene may affect her in the future or shorten her life because little is known about it.
“I think the way things are going and the way she continues to aggressively manage it in her childhood and adult life, she’ll have a long life,” he said.
Mureille doesn’t talk much, if at all, about her cystic fibrosis. Her close friends know about it. When she first told her teammates during her freshman season, they freaked out. Her opponents rarely have any idea that’s why Stone Bridge’s standout forward may be on the bench.
Murielle sees cystic fibrosis as just a fact of life. It’s occassionally an annoyance when she gets home late from a game and has to strap on the nebulizer around midnight. “I don’t really think about it because no one really knows,” she said.
To her, it’s not an excuse because she can do so much.
“I don’t think she wants people to say that she’s good just because she has that,” Herndon said. “She is a great player without it. I don’t think she wants people to feel bad for her about it.”