Love of Livestock Helps Indiana Teen Cope With Life-Threatening Disease
Each day the average person takes about 20,000 breaths. As air flows effortlessly in and out of the lungs, it’s an act most of us take for granted. For Dalaney Vickrey, those breaths come much harder. Diagnosed when she was a little more than 1 year old, the now 16-year-old lives each day managing cystic fibrosis (CF).
Yet, the Warren, Indiana, teen doesn’t let it hold her back. With the help of her family, she is determined to live a life without limits. That includes being a part of something she has been drawn to since she was a small child – showing pigs.
“Dalaney has been working with pigs since she was 4 years old,” says her dad, Bret Vickrey. “She has raised and shown more than 150 pigs.”
Doing this is no easy feat, given the countless hours it takes to ready an animal for the show ring, the unsavory mixture of particles floating through the air that accompanies life in the barn, and the long days she puts in once her pig finally reaches the ring.
“The dust in the barn and the extra energy it takes to care for and show an animal are definitely concerning because it is hard on her,” says Bret. “There are times we have had to step back and say we are done for the day because of how it affected her.”
Still, the time she invests provides an escape – if only temporarily – from the reality of a life filled with vest therapy, breathing treatments, feeding tubes, and more than a dozen medications taken daily to keep the disease at bay.
“I live with cystic fibrosis every single day of my life, but when I’m with my pigs, I forget I have it,” Dalaney says. “My favorite part about having pigs is how different each of their personalities is. It’s fun to see that come out as I spend time with them and get close to them. They are basically my friends except they can’t walk on two legs and talk.”
Dealing with a diverse mix of personalities has also ignited a determination to bring out the best in every animal she raises.
“In 2013, Dalaney’s barrow, Danger, didn’t perform the way she thought he should in his first show. “She was mad,” recalls her mom, Carin Vickrey. “She came home and spent hours upon hours in the yard working to get that barrow broke to drive exactly how she thought he needed to. Every win that pig had was a testament to her hard work.”
It’s that same determination Dalaney has used to cope with CF for so long and to take her every breath.
“In people with CF, a defective gene causes a thick, sticky buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas, and other organs,” explains Jennifer Milewski, executive director, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Indiana chapter.
In the lungs, mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria, which leads to infections. “This limits the ability to breathe over time and inevitably causes extensive lung damage and respiratory failure,” she adds.
Mucus also hinders the release of digestive enzymes in the pancreas that allow the body to break down food and to absorb vital nutrients. The result is malnutrition and poor growth. The thick mucus can also block the bile ducts, which can lead to liver disease.
“What that means is constantly watching Dalaney and knowing when to ignore a symptom and when to head for the hospital,” says Carin. “A good year is one without a hospitalization of seven to 14 days.”
When the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was founded in 1955, children with CF rarely lived long enough to attend elementary school. “Today, people with CF are achieving milestones like attending college, getting married, and having children – goals that used to seem impossible,” says Milewski. “This is due, in large part, to research the foundation has conducted and funded through support from the amazing CF community.”
However, there is still no cure. “We have made incredible progress in the fight against CF, but people with this disease are still dying far too young every day,” she adds.
This encourages the Vickreys to see time as a precious commodity and to make the most of every moment. “We want to give Dalaney as many opportunities as we can, because we don’t know how long we are going to have her,” says Bret.
Those opportunities have helped develop her talent in the ring and beyond. Dalaney has an innate sense when it comes to identifying a pig that will place. She was able to put that talent into practice as part of her Make-A-Wish request to be an honorary judge at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“Dalaney not only understands showmanship and how to show to win, but also understands selection,” says Nick Mauck, who is a Sunglo Feeds show feed specialist and judged with Dalaney at the 2015 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “She has as keen an eye as most adult judges. It was fun to watch how she handled herself. She looked like a seasoned pro as she helped place the Poland China barrows and talked about the reasons why a pig placed where it did.”
What’s in a name
As new four-legged friends come and go, it’s clear each holds a special place in this barely 100-pound young woman’s huge heart. So do the people who have touched her life because of CF.
“Dalaney named Danger after a gentleman we know who ran from Washington to Florida to raise awareness about CF,” says Carin. “This year, she named one of her pigs Carson after a little boy who has CF that she admires and is close to.”
Between pigs and people, Dalaney is surrounded by an incredible support system in her fight against CF.
“My parents do all they can to make living with cystic fibrosis easier for me,” she says as she fights back tears. “It’s all about ensuring that I’m having fun and enjoying life.”
the path to a cure
The Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Foundation is a donor-supported nonprofit organization founded in 1955 by parents of children with cystic fibrosis and leads in the search for a cure. Based in Bethesda, Maryland, it funds more CF research than any other organization, and nearly every CF drug available today was made possible because of the foundation’s support.
“In 2016, it spent $160 million on research and care awards, more than in any previous year in the foundation’s history,” says Jennifer Milewski, executive director, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Indiana chapter. “This includes laboratory research, preclinical drug development, clinical research, and high-quality specialized care.”
There are now two FDA-approved therapies that treat the basic defect in CF for more than half of the population. These therapies, Kalydeco and Orkambi, have transformed the lives of thousands of people, including Indiana teen Dalaney Vickrey.
There is still more work to be done. “We don’t just want to treat CF, we want to end CF,” says Milewski.