The Word Among Us

January 2011 Issue

Dancing for Dear Life

A High School Unites to Fight a Deadly Disease

By: Kathryn Elliott

Dancing for Dear Life: A High School Unites to Fight a Deadly Disease by Kathryn Elliott

On March 26, 2011, virtually all the students at Bishop O’Connell High School will be pouring their energy into helping save kids and young adults from a fatal disease.

They will do it in the way that has been a tradition at the Arlington, Virginia, school for more than three decades—by twelve hours of nonstop dancing.

“Superdance” originated with the classes of ’76 and ’77, but its roots go back to February 19, 1955, two years before the high school even existed: the wedding of Harold O’Donnell and Maureen McManus.

Harold, a handsome Marine Corps officer, planned to enter law school; Maureen was beginning a career as a high-school Latin teacher. They dreamed of a large and happy family.

In their thirty-five years together, the couple knew the joy of welcoming seven children into the world. But they also met with uncommon trials. How they responded when life didn’t turn out as they had planned is a story of faith and its far-reaching consequences.

CF Times Four. The O’Donnells were serious Catholics who were deeply convinced that every Christian has the vocation of being a witness to Christ. That faith was tested when their first daughter, Elizabeth, died soon after birth. The likely cause was cystic fibrosis (CF), doctors told them. Harold and Maureen didn’t know they were carriers of the disease (like some ten million people in the U.S. today) and were not familiar with it. They soon learned, however, that the body of a person with CF produces thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening infections. The mucus also blocks the pancreas, stopping natural enzymes from helping the body absorb food.

Although no cure has yet been found, advances in research and medical treatments have dramatically extended life expectancy for people with CF. In the 1950s, however, few survived early childhood.

The O’Donnells may not have known that with every pregnancy, they would have a one in four chance of having a child with cystic fibrosis. Not that this would have sapped their desire to keep building a family. Grateful for every child God sent them, they rejoiced at the birth of their second daughter, Cathy. Again, they received a devastating diagnosis: This little one, too, had CF.

More children followed, and with each pregnancy, the couple wondered and hoped. Would this precious child be healthy or terminally ill?

Maura arrived a year and a half later; she, too, had cystic fibrosis. So did Brenda, who followed her. In 1961, Megan was born—their fifth daughter and first healthy child.

A Culture of Life. Harold and Maureen’s family life evolved very differently from what they had imagined. Every day, there were CF treatment plans to implement—special diets, pricey medications, and therapies to clear the chest and airways. There were many visits to doctors and hospitalizations.

To obtain affordable health insurance, Harold put law school aside and made a career of the Marines. It wasn’t easy, especially when he was deployed to Vietnam for two years. Maureen worked full time to make ends meet; friends helped with the children during school hours.

At times, the O’Donnells’ life was a roller coaster of heartbreaks and joys. In 1963, they grieved when six-year-old Cathy lost her battle with CF. Later that year, they welcomed daughter Bridget, who was born healthy. Sean arrived a couple of years later. He was the fifth with CF—another chance to love and trust.

The couple struggled, for sure, but kept looking to God for the grace to meet each new challenge. They pointed their children in that direction, too. “Faith was not an addition to our lives, growing up. It was always a core component, like eating breakfast or brushing your teeth,” says Bridget. “If one of us was having a hard time, my parents would come over, give us a hug, and whisper in our ear: ‘Be still and know that I am’” (Psalm 46:11). It was a reminder that cut through the chaos.

The O’Donnells’ attitude of faith left little room for self-pity. “Happiness is a choice,” Maureen would point out. Both parents set an example of concern for others. Bridget remembers young Marines and their wives coming to live with her family while working out their struggles. “We never locked our front door. ‘Somebody might need something,’ my father would say. He created this culture: Everything you have, you share.”

“This Is the Goal.” Sean would die at age ten, so only two of the O’Donnell children with CF lived long enough to enter high school. Both attended Bishop O’Connell.

Maura, the older, was so athletic that people could hardly tell she was sick. An award-winning diver and field hockey player, she had an outgoing personality and strong faith. “You can’t get mad that I’m gonna die,” she would tell friends who were questioning God. “This is the goal. This is why we’re living—so that we can go to heaven.”

Brenda, more severely affected by CF, was frail and tiny—just four feet nine inches tall and weighing seventy pounds at age fourteen. She would be in class for a few days, then out for a few weeks. Friends helped carry her books, but even so, Brenda would arrive at each classroom exhausted. But she, too, radiated faith. “She was so happy. There was just a calm peace about her,” says classmate Darlene Gehley-Carlson.

In the spring of her sophomore year, Brenda went on a trip and returned so sick that her parents wanted to take her straight to the emergency room. She pleaded to go home to give her siblings the presents she had picked out. “She said, ‘I want to see the smile on their faces,’” recalls Bridget. “She wanted to have a party to celebrate her life.” At four the next morning, Brenda was coughing up blood in the sink. She died a few days later.

Dance for the Cure. When Bishop O’Connell students learned of Brenda’s death, it hit them hard. Inspired by the O’Donnells’ spirit of giving, they brainstormed about what they might do to remember Brenda and help her family.

They decided on a twelve-hour dance marathon that would raise money for research to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. The school principal, Monsignor James McMurtrie, put them in touch with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF), a nonprofit organization in the United States that spearheads research and care for people with the disease.

Then the students went to work. They sought donations from local businesses to provide food, decorations, and publicity. They asked neighbors, family, and friends to pledge a certain amount of money for each hour they danced.

The year was 1976, and students danced to the Doobie Brothers, the Beatles, and the Eagles from noon to midnight, only stopping for a five-minute rest every hour. During breaks, they collapsed to the floor, breathless and sweaty. They cheered as a screen showed how much had been raised on the hour. Each time, Maura stood up to thank everyone.

The event brought in an impressive sixteen thousand dollars for the foundation. Maura danced all twelve hours and raised one-tenth of the amount herself.

Mourning into Dancing. Today Superdance is the largest high-school fund raiser in the United States. Every year, students prepare for it with a school-wide assembly, where people with CF share about their day-to-day experience. O’Donnell family members also attend.

Maura died in May 1978, just before completing a degree in nursing. But her sister, Bridget O’Donnell-Bean, has spoken at twelve assemblies. Students have been moved to tears by her testimony of her parents’ continuing “epic love story.”

The O’Donnells’ legacy of love and faith, with its power to inspire the generations of students who keep dancing for a cure, is making a critical difference. To date, Bishop O’Connell students have raised more than three million dollars for the work of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The foundation is largely responsible for the rise in life expectancy for people with CF—from sixteen years in 1975 to thirty-seven and beyond in 2008. In 1989, a team of CFF-supported scientists discovered the defective CF gene, a milestone in understanding the disease. And relying only on donations, the foundation’s research continues. Aaron Stocks, a CFF representative, says twelve or thirteen new drugs should be in the clinical-trial phase by 2012.

“Superdance is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” he says, “Without those hundreds of thousands of dollars they raised this year and over the past thirty-five years, we wouldn’t have these medicines.”

Superdance inspires the students, too, observes Mike Kerr, 2010 vice president of the student council. “To see people’s lives changed by something I did gives me hope to try and change other things.” Superdance is a time to celebrate life, he says—the life that you’re giving other people. “I don’t relate it to death now. I relate it to the extension of life.”

Kathryn Elliott, a Bishop O’Connell graduate, is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota. More about Superdance at www.bishopoconnell.org/superdance. More about the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at www.cff.org.

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