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EVERY BREATH PROVIDES INSPIRATION

SHARE EVERY BREATH PROVIDES INSPIRATION

Willie Harbison wouldn't change one thing about his life. He wouldn't even give up the cystic fibrosis that grips his lungs.

"It's made me who I am and without it I don't know what I would have turned out like," said the 20-year-old, who was not supposed to live past the age of 5.Cystic fibrosis is a chronic and ultimately fatal disease that causes the lungs to constantly fill with a thick mucus. But Willie's passion for basketball has kept him victorious over the disease.

In his senior year of high school, he played an average of 30 minutes a game on the varsity team. This might be normal for an "average" player, but Willie is not "average."

Willie shouldn't have been able to walk the length of a basketball court, let alone run, a Seattle specialist once told Willie's mother, Terri Harbison. Willie still seeks the basketball court for therapy, but now he is coaching.

Each morning during the basketball season Willie gets up at 5 a.m. so that he can be at the gym at 6:30 a.m. to run the Hagerman eighth-grade girls' basketball practice. After practice, Willie travels to Twin Falls to attend the College of Southern Idaho, where he maintains a 12-credit-hour load.

Late in the afternoon, Willie returns to the gym to help Randy Clark coach the Hagerman boys' varsity basketball team. After that, he coaches the junior varsity team, returning home at 10 p.m.

In between these activities, Willie uses an "inhale nebulizer" twice a day that feeds his body two drugs that help fight the cystic fibrosis. Willie also uses a vibrating vest that loosens the mucus and forces him to cough it up. With the vest, Willie can tip himself upside down and allow it to pound on him in different positions.

But Willie and his mother agree that his active life is his real source of treatment.

Willie's will to overcome the disease keeps him out of the hospital and in the gym. It also motivates younger players. But the disease often keeps him awake at night, coughing and struggling to breathe.

"The older kids really respect him. If you get up some day and don't feel real good and think you'll take the day off, all you have to do is think of Willie," Clark said. "He shows up for practice every night. There are times when I know Willie has spent half the night up. He and his mother have been up, and yet he's right here."

Basketball and life didn't look so positive during a two-week stretch last summer.

Willie was still in the hospital when the boys' varsity basketball team attended the summer CSI basketball camp. At the end of the camp, the team played in a tournament in Kimberly, and Willie somehow put in an appearance.

"He had snuck out of the hospital, he and his mother, and he showed up and watched us play a half," Clark said. "He was not well at all. I'll never forget looking down and there he was sitting at the end of the bench watching the kids. To help somebody else out, he'll show up. He's an amazing young man."

The hospital was close to dismissing him, but by the time Willie and his mother arrived at the game, he was so badly winded and blue they knew he wasn't ready to be dismissed. Willie was changing doctors, and a medication he was taking lost its effectiveness, his mother said.

Despite such lapses, neither Clark nor Willie's mother thinks his condition is worsening. "If anything, it's leveling off," she said.

He wants to finish college and get a job teaching or coaching somewhere. He wants to teach physical education or get into psychology.

He will attend Boise State next year, and if he gets his wish he will commute so he can continue his coaching duties at Hagerman.

His parents' goal is to see Willie teach. What Willie won't say, but his parents will, is that the probability of Willie teaching is small.

After he finishes school, he will be dropped from his parents' insurance. Because of that, Willie will have to go on welfare to maintain insurance. If he goes on welfare, he cannot work.

"Here is somebody who is willing to work and can't," his mother said. "He'd have to teach for free. And no one is ruling that out as an option.

"There's got to be a way," she said. "He doesn't look it, but he is the strongest person I know."