Staff Photo: John Bohn Peachtree Ridge basketball player Melissa Turvey (12), right, steals the ball from Mill Creek's Tamarr Williams (12). Turvey plays despite fighting cystic fibrosis and celiac disease.
SUWANEE -- Go to any Peachtree Ridge girls basketball game and watch the players closely.
Now complete this task. Of the close to 30 players on both teams, try to pick the one battling a life-threatening disease.
A good guess would be the girl who is slow getting up and down the court. Maybe the one battling a cough. What about the girls on the bench? Any of them look sick?
Run through your best guesses. Your last guess may be the right answer. It's the constantly moving 5-foot-6 guard, an active defender and strong 3-point shooter who rarely leaves the court. A bundle of energy, she looks as much like a track and field sprinter as she does a basketball player.
Melissa Turvy may be fighting cystic fibrosis, as well as severe celiac disease, but the Peachtree Ridge junior doesn't look the part of sick teenager.
Far from it.
"You'd never know she was sick unless she told you," Peachtree Ridge girls coach James Clanahan said. "And she doesn't want to be treated any differently."
Those who have watched her play basketball over the years typically have the same reaction, a shock that Turvy has such a serious illness. They know her for her strength and endurance, traits that have so far fought off the serious side effects that inevitably come with cystic fibrosis, an inherited, chronic disease that primarily attacks the lungs.
"When I tell people, they're like, 'Really?' They don't believe me," said Turvy, who earned first-team all-county and all-region honors as a sophomore. "Some people are really shocked when they find out. I'm pretty healthy for having CF. I'm not coughing all the time. They see how bad it can be and don't expect me to be as healthy as I am."
Getting to this stage of health wasn't easy, though. It still isn't.
Turvy's day-to-day schedule is way different from the average high-schooler, with her twice daily treatments and her special diet.
"It's a lot of work for her that people don't know about," Clanahan said.
There is plenty more to Turvy's story that most don't know, starting with her struggles as an infant.
A scary start
Cystic fibrosis is hereditary, though Beth and Larry Turvy don't know of another family member with CF. It certainly wasn't on their mind when their first child was born, and she immediately began battling health problems.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, roughly 30,000 people in the U.S. have CF and an additional 10 million -- one in every 31 Americans -- are carriers of the defective CF gene. To have CF, a person must inherit two copies of the defective gene, one from each parent.
Melissa Turvy is one of those unlucky ones (her younger sister Savanna is fortunate -- she has neither disease).
Thankfully, she doesn't recall much about her early childhood. Those memories wouldn't be fond.
"I really don't remember much from when I was little," Turvy said. "My parents tell me I was in and out of the hospital for a few years. It was pretty scary, apparently."
Beth Turvy can attest to that.
Her daughter was diagnosed with CF at nine months, but continued to struggle the next few years. Between that diagnosis and just past her second birthday, she had been admitted to the hospital five times.
After the CF news, it took another nine months to discover that a second issue, celiac disease, was causing severe problems, too. She vomited daily, as even small snacks like Cheerios or graham crackers caused her to throw up. Her body wasn't absorbing the nutrition it needed, a sign of celiac, an autoimmune disorder that requires a completely gluten-free diet.
At 13 months, she visited Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston as a tiny, malnourished infant. The doctors diagnosed "a failure to thrive."
"They told us (Melissa) had the nutrition level of a child in a third-world country," Beth Turvy said. "She couldn't undergo surgery at first because there was not enough vitamin K to clot her blood."
When she was ready, Turvy got a central line put in for feeding. After that and the celiac discovery, she began to put on weight.
"You started to see those chubby cheeks," Beth Turvy said.
Before her third birthday, Turvy had a permanent MIC-KEY feeding tube put in her stomach that infused her with 300 calories a night between the ages of 3 and 7.
Managing the lifestyle
Never a big eater, it took Turvy 45 minutes as a child to make it through a small lunch.
But her parents stressed nutrition and healthy calorie intake from an early age, insisting that she eat well after witnessing other "stick-figure" children who had CF. Not eating was never an option for her. She had a daily calorie intake goal and she had to meet it.
The eating battle continued for much of her elementary school years and it wasn't until fifth grade that Turvy mentioned to her parents that she was hungry for a meal.
The high-calorie, high-protein diet -- also a gluten-free plan because of the celiac -- helps greatly with youngsters who have CF. It helps them grow and thrive.
"I'm so thankful for my parents," Turvy said. "If it wasn't for them stressing nutrition and always pushing me to do my treatments, I wouldn't be as healthy as I am."
The diet complications coincided with Turvy's required daily treatments for CF. Both of those issues still make her life more regimented than her classmates.
Before every meal, she has to take medicine for celiac, which requires a special trip to the clinic before lunch each day to get her pill. She appreciates when her friends and teammates go to restaurants with gluten-free menus (she's thankful to have more options for eating out than in the past), but she's just as happy to bring her own food and order a Coke with her friends at a fast-food joint.
Her CF treatments are just as big as a hassle. Every day, she wakes up and does a 30-minute breathing treatment while also wearing a vest that shakes her lungs to loosen mucus. She repeats that course in the evening, a twice-daily routine that she's followed her entire life.
The medicine in those treatments has changed, but her schedule hasn't.
"Twice a day, every day," said Turvy, who also has breathing tests and a culture for bacteria every three months at a CF clinic. "Now it's just like eating. It's just something I do. Sometimes the medicine would taste really bad, but after a week or two it tastes normal. I don't care if my friends see me do it. It's just a quick 30 minutes and I move on.
"I was always scared to tell people about it when I was younger. I was afraid they'd think I was weird or something. I didn't want them feeling bad for me. Now I'm more comfortable telling people. It doesn't bother me to talk about it."
Finding her sport
The Turvys never hesitated to let their daughter play sports, well aware that her high energy needed an outlet and that regular exercise was a huge weapon in the fight against CF.
She excelled at both softball and basketball growing up, but gave up the former as a middle-schooler, in part because the dust and outside air from softball wasn't good for her lungs.
From the start, she was a feisty defender on the basketball court. Her offensive game later evolved as she grew into the dangerous outside shooter who made a school-record eight 3-pointers in one game last season.
Through it all, she had a toughness to her.
Peachtree Ridge boys coach Keith Arrington pointed that out to Clanahan, who had just been hired as girls coach, when Turvy was a freshman in P.E. class.
"(Arrington) pointed her out to me right away," Clanahan said. "He said, 'She plays against the boys and she's really tough. She'll be a player.'"
That prediction proved true with Turvy, who has started every game for the Lions since her freshman season. If she stays healthy, her coach said she'll have a chance to start and play in more games than any girls basketball player in school history.
Throughout her career, Turvy hasn't suffered any breathing problems from CF. The only hitch came last season against Norcross when her MIC-KEY port got knocked out during the game. She left the court and her mother popped it back in.
Turvy said a little stomach acid dripped out, making sure to stress that it wasn't a big deal. It's that toughness that her coaches love.
"I love her success, I really do," Clanahan said. "She deserves it. I'm just really proud of her."
What the future holds
Here's where Turvy differs from other Peachtree Ridge students -- nobody's told them how long they will live.
CF patients can't avoid hearing those kind of stats and facing their own mortality. The average life expectancy for people with the disease is slowly going up, but the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation still lists the median age in the upper 30s, though it quickly points out that CF patients also can live into their "30s, 40s and beyond."
It's the latter option that Turvy is focused on.
"I still want to go to college, graduate, have a family," Turvy said. "I am kind of scared about having kids though when I get older because I don't want to give them the disease. I'll have to figure that out, but that's a long way away."
Her positive outlook is bolstered by her physical condition. She's never had any problems, breathing or otherwise, with her athletic activities. On her off days or offseason, Turvy is in the gym running or lifting weights.
The stronger and healthier she is, the better equipped she is to fight CF. She said the extra workouts really don't have anything to do with worrying about her disease, it's just that she enjoys it.
She knows how long the stats tell her she'll live, but she doesn't dwell on it.
"I just always think positive," Turvy said. "If I keep doing everything I'm doing now, then hopefully it won't affect me until I'm a lot older than 35. I just try to think positive. When I'm really tired and don't want to do a treatment, I think about that. That it will be worth it when I'm older."
CF doesn't have a cure, so Turvy isn't banking on one. She doesn't want to get her hopes up. But advances in medicine have made long lives an option, an astonishing improvement from 50 years ago when children with CF rarely lived past elementary school.
"A lot of people with CF now live well into adulthood and have families," Beth Turvy said. "That's what she looks forward to. I don't think she's ever thought that she wouldn't grow up and have a family, have children. That's what we want for her, too -- a normal, healthy life."
Which is what the Turvys wanted for their daughter all along. It seemed like a longshot when she was a struggling infant, but she's on a much better path these days.
She doesn't feel or look sick, on or off the basketball court.
"It's really a miracle to see where she is now," Beth Turvy said. "From where she was at nine months old when she was diagnosed and from 13 months old when she was diagnosed as failure to thrive. She was this little bitty thing.
"But she always had this fighting spirit. She was not going to be stopped."