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Jennifer Hamby (center) and members of Hamby and Hollifield’s family pictured with Colt Underwood at the Great Wolf Lodge in Charlotte. Pictured are (from left) Teresa Cook, Lilly Hollifield, Travis Hollifield, Rachael Hollifield, Taylar Hollifield, Underwood, Hamby, Maverick Randolph, Joey Hamby and Lester Cook.

A Marion woman treated for cystic fibrosis received the surprise gift of a lifetime from her sister, other family and former NFL player and contestant on “The Bachelorette” Colton Underwood last month.

In late February, Jennifer Hamby was one of 50 recipients of the AffloVest, an aid for cystic fibrosis patients, courtesy of the Colton Underwood Legacy Foundation.

Hamby, 39, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 3-months-old and has been undergoing treatment for it for all of her adult life, crediting her family and faith in staying motivated.

“I’ve been coping very well,” said Hamby. “I’ve had good days and bad days, as you would with anything, really. But what’s gotten me the furthest is putting my faith in the Lord. Just knowing that everything’s going to be okay, whether it’s good or bad. If it hadn’t been for the faith and my family for teaching me to depend on the faith and being saved and stuff like that, I don’t know if I would have done as well as I have.”

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the condition is a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. In people with the disease, mutations in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene cause the CFTR protein to become dysfunctional. When the protein is not working correctly, it is unable to help move chloride – a component of salt – to the cell surface. Without the chloride to attract water to the cell surface, the mucus in various organs becomes thick and sticky. In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps germs, like bacteria, leading to infections, inflammation, respiratory failure and other complications.

Among one of the organizations trying to assist cystic fibrosis patients is the Colton Underwood Legacy Foundation, started by the former NFL player and inspired by his 4-year-old cousin Harper, who was diagnosed with the disease when she was born.

Hamby’s sister, Rachael Hollifield, was made aware of the foundation while watching Underwood as a contestant on ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and decided to take action.

“Colton was a contestant during that season, and in his interviews and stuff, he had mentioned that he had a cystic fibrosis foundation because of his little cousin,” said Hollifield. “So, of course, when I heard ‘cystic fibrosis,’ I just started Googling it and found out through his webpage he had what he called the Legacy Project. I just immediately said, ‘Jen needs this, let’s go.’”

In partnership with International Biophysics, the foundation’s Legacy Project awards the AffloVest – a high frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) device – to 50 recipients, one in every state in the country, based on physical and financial need and the anticipated impact of the vest on his or her quality of life.

Upon finding out about the project, Hollifield began the nomination process, submitting and putting together a PowerPoint video with details on Hamby and her condition to the foundation in August. Three months later, Hollifield was notified.

“They contacted me, I believe it was the end of in November,” said Hollifield, “and told me that Colton himself had chosen Jennifer, he really liked her story and that she was such a long-time warrior.”

From there, the decision was made to award Hamby the vest, but on Underwood’s request that she not be aware of it until the day of in order to surprise her. During this time, Hollifield was in touch with the foundation’s representatives to orchestrate when and how to award the vest. Ultimately, a plan was put into motion when, during Christmas, Hamby’s 12-year-old son Maverick was given “fake” tickets to a Charlotte Hornets scheduled for Feb. 23.

The weekend arrives.

“They got us a room at the Great Wolf Lodge for my son and my sister’s two kids so they could have some fun with it,” said Hamby. “We stayed Friday night and then Saturday, we got to go over 3-and-a-half hours before the game started and that’s when I met Colton himself. I didn’t know anything until we walked in the room. Well, I kind of had a hint something was going on ‘cause we took off our hoodies and went inside and the back of their hoodies said ‘Swarming for Cystic Fibrosis,’ my sister had it listed on their t-shirts, and she didn’t do mine. So I knew something was up. And we’re walking down the hallway and there was this big background that said Colton’s Legacy Foundation, so I knew something in that room was going down.”

As the surprise culminated, Underwood presented Hamby with the vest, spoke with her and the family and enjoyed the Hornets game and dinner with him in the press box.

“He came out and gave me my vest and gift bag, and I cried and she cried and we all cried,” said Hamby. “It was just a good family thing that I got to do. I still think about it and it’s just surreal. I don’t even – I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it because I’ve never been given this opportunity in my life. And I’m very thankful for what my sister did. I don’t know what she wrote in it, but I know it’s her honest feelings. I didn’t know that I inspired her or other people the way that I do, and it’s just hard to believe.”

The vest itself, designed like a life jacket, has eight oscillating motors that create eight individual pressure wave forms in the chest, providing disruption in the lungs, mobilizing more secretions and helping in respiration. According to Hamby, the vest is modified to her size and measurements and adjusted to her preferred settings (25 minute intervals) with different levels of intensity and vibration. Since receiving the vest, Hamby says she has seen improvements in her health.

“It’s just really helpful,” said Hamby. “I can drive with it on, go shopping, go outside, play with my son, different things that I couldn’t do before because I had to be stationary. I’ve seen an improvement, I don’t cough as much.”

In reflecting on everything leading up to the surprise in February and afterwards, Hamby was thankful to her and Hollifield’s parents and step-parents, her husband of seven years Joseph, their son and her sister.

“My mom and my step-dad (Kathy & Randy Pool) didn’t get to go when this happened, but I want people to know they’re a part of my story too,” said Hamby, “and my sister and I have been together since she was six years old, when I was 12. I don’t consider her a step-sister, she’s more of a sister, y’know, that I didn’t have biologically. She was placed in my life. But everything’s been wonderful.”

Since 2015, the Legacy Foundation has given nearly $100,000 in cash and equipment donations to cystic fibrosis patients as well as clinics and research organizations focused on treating people living with cystic fibrosis, according to the foundation’s website.

Symptoms of cystic fibrosis may include:

- Very salty-tasting skin

- Persistent coughing, at times with phlegm

- Frequent lung infections including pneumonia or bronchitis

- Wheezing or shortness of breath

- Poor growth or weight gain in spite of a good appetite

- Frequent greasy, bulky stools or difficulty with bowel movements

- Male infertility

For more information on The Colton Underwood Legacy Foundation and the Legacy Project, go to www.coltonslegacy.org.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, further information can be found at www.cff.org.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Patient Registry, in the United States:

-              More than 30,000 people are living with cystic fibrosis (more than 70,000 worldwide).

-              Approximately 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed each year.

-              More than 75 percent of people with CF are diagnosed by age 2.

-              More than half of the CF population is age 18 or older.

For more information, visit www.cff.org.

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