By Joey Kennedy // Photography by Beau Gustafson
Sandi Jo Minor’s smile is awesome. Her smile is optimistic and infectious. You have to smile with her.
And, for whatever reason, Sandi doesn’t like her smile.
“My smile has always been one of my insecurities,” she says. “I soft smile a lot. I feel like that just looks better on me.”
A “soft smile” is Sandi’s closed-mouth smile, not showing her teeth. But on this day, she smiles fully, and it’s wonderful.
I first noticed Sandi’s smile last fall, when she was in my English composition class at UAB. I saw it again this year, when she took another of my composition classes at the university.
Sandi’s smile is bright and encouraging. She has a smile that tells you she’s alive. She’s up for the day. She’s there, ready and willing, to take on the challenges she’s going to face.
Sandi smiles. And she faces her challenges.
Sandi Minor has cystic fibrosis. That’s a death sentence, and she knows it.
But she still smiles.
On this day, we’re at Children’s of Alabama, where Sandi has spent much of her life. The 18-year-old will be at Children’s until she’s 21, and then will move to UAB.
Sandi smiles, and her smile is genuine.
Every day, 24/7, 365 days a year, Sandi goes through her treatments. Thirty minutes in the morning, with a vest that vibrates to help loosen the crud in her chest. She inhales a nebulizer while she vibrates her chest. Then, she does another series of nebulizers, three in all, to help her breathe. And she injects herself with insulin, for her CF-related diabetes. She takes another six pills for her condition. Every time she eats, she takes another three pills to help her digest her foods, because her cystic fibrosis doesn’t allow her to absorb nutrients as you and I do. She takes multivitamins and vitamin D. Prilosec for her stomach. Kidney medicine.
And then again, in the evening.
And, every day, Sandi comes to class. Ready to work. Ready to learn.
Sandi Minor wants to be a nurse. This semester, she’s taking a full load, including chemistry and a lab, and anatomy and a lab. Along with English and psychology.
Sandi is a student, and she doesn’t wear her CF when she goes to her classes.
“I do the same things every day,” Sandi says. “I pretty much always have trouble breathing during the day, but it just feels normal. I know something’s wrong, but to me, it’s normal.”
Sandi is a college student, doing college student things. She goes to her classes, dreams of her life as a nurse, coughs often, and smiles. That beautiful smile.
Her dreams are our dreams. Sandi wants to have a family, to have children, to do what all of us dream of doing.
She likes going to the movies with her boyfriend, Cole. She eats pizza “when I have the money,” and she likes shopping. “But most of my money goes to food and gas,” not unlike so many college students.
But unlike other college students, Sandi has to start her days early, and end her days late. She has to do her treatments, take her medicine, be careful she doesn’t expose herself to colds or other illnesses that are rampant on campus.
But Sandi doesn’t complain.
“It’s weird to think about the future for me,” Sandi says. “When you have CF, you think about only dying from CF.”
Treatments for cystic fibrosis have come a long way. Today, the average life span for somebody with CF is 37 years. Sandi, at 18, knows she’s lived half her life. But, too, treatments are improving, and the lifespan is increasing.
“I recognize what’s going on with my health, but I still hope for the better of it,” Sandi says. “I still hope they find more therapies, and hopefully a cure. But I think that’s going to take a really long time to develop. A longer time than I have.”
Every morning, Sandi is there. Doing her work, her daily writings. She’s there, participating in her labs and classes. She’s there.
“I try to push myself a lot,” Sandi says. “I don’t want to feel I can’t do stuff other students do. I don’t want to be set back because of my CF.”
It’s not easy. Anatomy takes hours of study, as does chemistry. Sandi works hard, studies hard, stays up late at night.
“That anatomy and chemistry are railing me,” Sandi says. “It’s kind of good, though, because it’s giving me my first taste in the college world. Pulling all-nighters to study. Getting bad test grades. That’s what I need to set me in my place.”
Sandi’s hopes aren’t much different than any of us would have.
“I don’t want to let CF get in the way of my life decisions, because right now it does,” Sandi says. “I want to be able to provide the same support to my family that my parents have to me. I’d love to repay my family for the support they’ve given me.”
If you met Sandi Minor on campus, you’d never know she has cystic fibrosis. She doesn’t advertise it, and she doesn’t know another student on campus with her disease.
Sandi goes to class, does her work, and deals with her condition, quietly. I would have never known she had CF if she hadn’t outed herself in one of our gazillion daily writings.
But she did. And when I said something to her about it, she smiled. That smile. Yes. That one.