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Written by Lori Denman   

October 2008: Volume 7 / No. 8
October 2008: Volume 7 / No. 8
Salt Water, Surf and Cystic Fibrosis

Detoxification, cleansing, rejuvenation and healing can happen on the mat and for some people, particularly surfers, in the sea.

Hitting the water refreshes the body and calms the mind. As a surfer rides a wave, magic unfolds. Time stops, washing away all worries. This is when the meditation begins. The strong healing properties of saltwater are a surfer’s medicine, both physically and emotionally. This is the case for people living with the chronic genetic disease of cystic fibrosis (CF), who find spending time in the ocean provides an even deeper healing benefit than what would appear on the surface.

Mark Elkins, a researcher at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital began noticing differences among his patients with cystic fibrosis: several were in generally better health than others. The common thread among his healthier patients was they were all avid surfers, who reported that their chests and sinuses felt clear, and they coughed up much of the thick mucus that clogged their lungs.

CF is an inherited chronic disease in which a defective gene, and therefore the defective protein produced by its encoding, leads the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus. This mucus clogs the lungs and interferes with release of enzymes from the pancreas. This affects digestion and respiration. The sticky mucus creates a fertile home for bacteria and other infectious agents and can make affected persons more susceptible to contracting and succumbing to life-threatening lung infections. Even though there is a thick layer of mucus, the lungs of people with CF do not produce the normal, thin watery lubricant that lines the airway. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, 30,000 children and adults in America, and 70,000 worldwide are currently diagnosed with the disease.

When Elkins investigated the connection between his surfing patients and their disease processes, he discovered the salty ocean mist actually helped re-hydrate their lungs.

On the shores of another ocean, Dr. Scott Donaldson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted a similar effect as stated on CNN, “surfers with cystic fibrosis had fewer lung exacerbations.” The lungs of patients who inhaled the saltwater, he added, became “re-hydrated by adding a layer of water to the airway surface. That acts as a lubricant, which makes it easier to clear the mucus.”

Following the surfers’ feedback and studies, doctors in Australia and America started to test whether water saltier than the body’s own salinity (hypertonic) might help replace the natural lubrication missing in a person with cystic fibrosis. Researchers hoped the extra salt would draw water out of the lung tissue onto the space within the airway and provide a thin layer of liquid to ease mucus out of the lung.

The result of this discovery was the development of a breathing treatment for those salt water, surf and cystic fibrosis with CF called hypertonic saline solution, which mimics a “surf session” for the lungs. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, inhaling a mix of this specially mixed sterile saltwater solution at least twice a day results in improvements in lung function and significant reductions in hospitalizations.

In celebration of the link between surfing and its healing aspects for CF patients, a group of CF Foundation activists and professional surfers gathered together to raise money to help find a cure for the deadly disease.

Laird Hamilton, Emily Haager and David Kalama
Laird Hamilton, Emily Haager and David Kalama
On Saturday, July 19, 2008, surfing legends gathered at the PacSun Pipeline to a Cure gala at the Hyatt Regency in Huntington Beach, California. Honorary co-chairs and big wave surfers Laird Hamilton and David Kalama were joined by surfing stars Mickey Munoz, Gerry Lopez, Jericho Poplar, Lisa Andersen and others to support the event which included dinner, an auction and performances by Social Distortion and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong. The successful event raised nearly $425,000.

Hamilton and Kalama continually risk their lives for the perfect ride by surfing 70 foot walls of water. While they battle and conquer fierce elements by choice, the two legendary watermen now hold an additional hero in their hearts – a young surfer girl with CF, Emily Haager, who surfs to survive. A surfer from Diamond Bar, California, Haager is the face for Pipeline to a Cure. She was born with the genetic disease and diagnosed when six months old.

When Haager was born in 1983, the median life expectancy of a person with CF was less than 18 years. Due to support of the Cystic Fybrosis Foundation, by fundraising campaigns like Pipeline to a Cure, the average life expectancy is now 37. At age 25, Haager has surpassed her doctors’ expectations and stands strong against the odds.

Hamilton expressed his enthusiasm for honoring the link between his most cherished sport and CF. “To me, the healing aspect of surfing for CF patients makes perfect sense. I see what surfing has done for me with recharge, recovery and how it affects me personally. Those with CF do not live forever and carry a horrible physical burden that none of us [without CF] can imagine. This is why Dave and I want to participate in this cause, so that we can help raise money for additional medical research and hopefully find a cure.”

Kalama saw his support as a natural progression from his love for surfing. “In regards to the event’s success, I think that can be attributed to the legitimate connection between surfing and saltwater being an organic healing treatment for cystic fibrosis,” he said. “This tie has motivated everyone here because we all understand it. Everyone understands how important saltwater is, not just to ride waves but the benefits mentally and physically.”

Emily Haager certainly knows how to ride the waves and they have benefitted her body and spirit. “It is my dream to go a day without treatments and eventually be the longest living female surfing survivor of cystic fibrosis out in the water,” Haager said with hope.

Hamilton, Kalama and the other individuals involved with Pipeline to a Cure are striving to make Haager’s dream a reality.

PacSun Pipeline to a Cure was the first fundraising event for the campaign. To learn more about the campaign, visit:

For Emily’s story, visit: For more information about cystic fibrosis, visit:

When not sitting at her computer writing, jamming in the SoCal music scene or practicing at Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga, Lori Denman is frequently seen on a surfboard, inhaling the salt air and riding the waves

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