Jerry Cahill was told he would die at 16. 

But today, the 60-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer is still going strong.

And he says pole-vaulting is the key to his astonishing survival.

Born in the ‘dark ages’ of the disease, Jerry’s pediatrician in Brooklyn, New York, was baffled by the then-eight-year-old’s constant wheezing, fatigue, and pain.

Another doctor walking past heard his abnormal breathing and asked to take some tests. His suspicion was right: Jerry had cystic fibrosis, a newly-discovered lung and digestive disease.

In the 1970s, sufferers were not expected to live past their teens at best. Even now, the average life expectancy of a CF sufferer is 36.

To make the most of the time they had, his father decided Jerry should play sports with his older – and much more athletic – brothers. Jerry fumbled with team sports before finding he had a talent for pole-vaulting, which he still competes in and coaches today. 

Now doctors officially recommend exercise as a crucial way to help CF sufferers breathe and cough to get rid of mucus in their lungs.

Jerry is the poster boy for that advice: last week he celebrated his 60th birthday, and the screening of a documentary, Up For Air, describing his astonishing journey.

‘It’s unbelievable,’ Jerry told Daily Mail Online days before his birthday on June 26. 

‘I feel blessed that I’m doing as well as I am with CF at 60.

‘It’s a combination of body, mind and spirit. Being positive, exercising, eating well, and getting out there to enjoy all parts of life. 

‘You can’t obsess over CF, you have to get in the game of life and enjoy life.’

Cystic fibrosis is an incurable genetic disease that affects around 70,000 people worldwide.

A defective gene causes a build-up of mucus in the airwaves, making it increasingly difficult to breathe over time. 


Mucus also blocks the natural release of digestive enzymes, meaning the body does not break down food as it should.

While healthy people cough naturally, that does not happen for people with CF. 

Beyond hours of taking medication and using breathing machines, Jerry would pole-vault, cycle, run, and lift weights to make himself cough.

Pole-vaulting is a highly athletic sport in which individuals run up a track then use a pole to vault themselves over a bar then fall down onto a crash pad. 

During the contest the bar is raised inches and inches. The current men’s record is 20’2.5″.

The coach that took Jerry on as a skinny wheezing teen told the documentary Up For Air he didn’t know what to do with him at first.

‘He looked like he was going to drop down dead,’ coach Sean told the camera. 

Once Jerry got a doctor’s note he let him come on board – and was astonished to see him develop one of the best techniques in the game. Now, Jerry trains high school kids through state and national contests.

Beyond his athletic successes, the activity was a lifeline for Jerry.

‘Exercise is the best way the clear airways,’ Jerry explains. 

‘You’re running and moving and coughing, which really helps clear out your lungs.

‘I exercise every day. You can’t get caught in a comfort zone, eating whatever and not exercising, because for someone with CF that could be lethal.’

Jerry is currently in post-op recovery. 

Up For Air follows him through one of the darkest moments of his life in 2012 when his lung function dropped below 20 per cent and he was put on the list for a double lung transplant.

Double lung transplants have a 50 per cent survival rate within the first four years after surgery.

Jerry underwent surgery after a year on the waiting list. It was successful and four years later he is in a stable condition. 

But he is not cured of everything.

He is now immune suppressed to prevent his body from rejecting the lungs. He has also contracted diabetes – a common side effect of this procedure – and continues to suffer severe digestive issues. 

‘Getting a transplant is not a be-all-and-end-all cure,’ Jerry explains. 

‘I can breathe now and I am alive but there’s always problems post-transplant.

‘You change one set of problems for another. I still have the digestive component with CF, and I have developed diabetes. And I face a big problem of being immune suppressed. Me getting a common cold could be lethal.

‘I don’t take public transport. I don’t really shake hands. I’ll do a bump and nod at people.

‘It’s isolating at times but you have a choice.’

Despite his delicate condition, Jerry ran a 10k three months after his transplant to raise money for the Boomer Esiason Foundation, the charity started by Boomer Esiason, the retired quarterback whose son has CF.

An ambassador for the foundation, Jerry produces educational podcasts about cystic fibrosis, sharing his own experience and meeting other sufferers. 

‘A lot of people with CF, they have this impending doom. They’re not going to live,’ he says.

‘People are driven by video. Seeing is believing. Seeing from somebody that has the disease, that’s inspiring.’

The documentary, Up For Air, is currently available to purchase for screenings, with the hope that it will be streamed nationwide next year.

The screening in Boston on Jerry’s birthday was hosted by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a firm that has produced two key medications for cystic fibrosis.  

Reflecting on the documentary, Jerry bashfully garbled that he couldn’t imagine why director Artem Agafonov wanted to make a movie about him. 

But after seeing the first screening in New York on June 21, he was humbly pleased.

‘It’s really great because it’s making a difference and inspiring a lot of people for anybody who’s trying to overcome obstacles,’ he said.

‘There was stuff that was really funny. I was laughing at some of it. It’s not like you’re typical transplant documentary. It’s not your typical CF documentary. It’s just about overcoming obstacles and loving life. 

‘Everybody has something in life you’re going to through and to dwell on it, well you’ll just get stuck in the mud.’


Leave A Comment