Chance of a lifetime

By Trish Brandt

  • Thursday, January 27, 2005 6:00am
  • News

By Trish Brandt

At first glance, it reads like a fairy tale: The story of a local teenager who lands an agent in Los Angeles and heads for Hollywood and possible stardom. Except that this is no ordinary story, because Lindsey Fellows is no ordinary teenager.

Four months after she was born, Fellows was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), an incurable genetic disorder that affects the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems. At the time, life expectancy for a person with CF was around 15 years.

“She was such a pretty baby,” said her mother, Kelly Stewart. “It was hard to believe there was anything wrong with her.”

According to Stewart, the initial challenge was to ensure her daughter gained sufficient weight.

“Her nutrition requirements were two to three times more than the average child,” explained Stewart. “She had to have pancreatic enzymes with every meal to help her digest and absorb her nutrition.”

After a somewhat shaky start, Fellows thrived and was able to do the things most little girls do. She studied dance and learned to play the piano.

“We always used the word `condition’ with Lindsey — never `disease’ or `disorder,”’ said Stewart. “And life was pretty normal.”

Until one day it all changed.

“Lindsey was in seventh grade and the class was discussing HIV,” said Stewart. “Someone turned to her and said, `You also have a disease.”’

Fellows came home from school and asked her mother if she was going to die.

“I said `Hopefully not,”’ said Stewart. “Hopefully ? by taking care of herself, she would be one of the CF patients that lived longer than others.”

Fellows returned to school with a different attitude.

“I didn’t care about my grades anymore,” she said. “And I started acting.”

Seventh grade was also the year that Fellows had to be hospitalized for the first of many respiratory infections.

“Since middle school, she has had to go in for antibiotics two to three times a year,” said Stewart. “We call it a tune-up.”

After each hospitalization, Fellows continues with her maintenance program, which includes taking enzymes with every meal and following a high calorie diet.

“I’m really healthy, sometimes I forget I have CF,” said Fellows. “It doesn’t affect my everyday life — except when I get sick, I get really sick.”

And thanks to advancements in the treatment of the disease, the median life expectancy for CF patients has more than doubled.

“I remember wondering if we were going to see kindergarten,” said Stewart. “And now Lindsey is 18.”

And like most teenagers her age, she’s preparing to leave home for the first time. Only she’s not going off to college — she’s headed for Hollywood, hoping to take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime.

Hollywood bound

It happened by chance. Fellows read an article in the Reporter about a new acting studio opening on the Island, the Actor’s Studio. She decided to take some classes.

Cassandra Chamberlain, founder and director of The Actor’s Studio N.W., was immediately impressed by her new student.

“She has a fire inside her,” said Chamberlain. “And she has a natural instinct for comedy.”

When Chamberlain found out Fellows had CF, she was determined to find a way to help her realize her dream.

“Doors don’t just open for you in L.A. unless you have contacts,” said Chamberlain. “It’s so much about who you know.”

Chamberlain called on some old Hollywood friends — casting directors Cathy Henderson and Ted Hann. Together they devised a plan, which culminated in a trip to Los Angeles in December.

In less than a week, Fellows auditioned for six agents and four casting directors.

“They all saw what I saw,” said Chamberlain. “She has talent.”

Fellows also met with the vice president of casting at Warner Brothers Television, Lisa Loia, and found her way onto the A-list of an exclusive Hollywood party.

After more than one agent expressed interest in Fellows, a decision was made to go with Meredith Fine at Coast to Coast, which also represents Haley Joel Osmen.

Chamberlain, who has since become Fellows’ manager and personal acting coach, is thrilled.

“We’re going down to L.A. for pilot season,” said Chamberlain.

Between February and April, Fellows hopes to audition for cable television shows and many of the major networks. She has also been invited back to see Loia at Warner Brothers.

Acting has become the most important thing in her life. In November, knowing she would be unable to graduate because of the amount of school she had missed, Fellows dropped out of Mercer Island High School.

“My teachers were really accommodating,” she said. “But at some point they have to say, `You weren’t here so we can’t give you a credit.”’

However, realizing she still needs to go to college, Fellows has been studying for her GED through Bellevue Community College. She plans to have it completed before leaving for Los Angeles.

Fellows lives with her mom, stepfather and twin brothers, Jacob and Joshua Stewart, who are in first grade at West Mercer Elementary School. Her father works for Disneyworld and lives in Florida.

“My dad’s the most supportive out of the family,” said Fellows. “My mom is too, but she’s kind of nervous. Plus, I’m leaving her.”

It will be the first time in her life without her mother.

“I’m guarded about her going,” said Stewart. “But she’s fine. She doesn’t waste energy worrying — she leaves that to me and I worry enough for the two of us.”

Fellows dreams of playing a sarcastic, ditsy girl in a sitcom.

“Cassandra has opened a lot of doors for Lindsey,” said Stewart. “But Lindsey still has to walk through them.”

Since meeting Chamberlain, Fellows has found direction and renewed energy for life.

“I have a focus now and a bigger drive than I had before,” said Fellows. “A lot of people think this (cystic fibrosis) might get in my way in L.A., but it’s all I care about and I’m going to find a way to make it work.”

Aaron Hochberg, a senior at MIHS, is proud of her.

“A lot of pressure maybe makes it a little more difficult for her,” said Hochberg. “But she has a desire to make things happen and doesn’t just sit back and wait.”

It seems that from the start, Fellows has been determined to beat the odds.

“I wanted her to be healthy and happy and just take a bite out of life,” explained Stewart. “And she has been doing that since day one.”

As for the future, Fellows doesn’t let herself go there.

“It’s scary but I think I’ll be OK,” Fellows said. “The biggest problem right now is funds. My parents have given me all they’ve got, but we just don’t have enough for the full three months in L.A.”

Fellows is working every chance she gets to earn extra money, from taking care of kids to helping out at a store in Bellevue Square.

“I know things aren’t always going to be perfect,” she concluded. “I might be unlucky in the health department but I’m really lucky to have this opportunity. You only get one chance and this is it for me!”

The family would welcome donations to assist with medical bills and to help subsidize the three-month pilot season in Los Angeles. Monetary donations can be made directly into the Lindsey Fellows fund at any Washington Mutual bank. For more information, call Kelly Stewart at 232 1521.

Facts about cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems. There are approximately 30,000 people in the United States with CF and about 3,200 new cases are diagnosed each year.

It is an inherited condition affecting the cells that produce mucus, sweat, saliva and digestive juices. According to the American Medical Association, changes to the chemical properties of the mucus cause thicker-than-normal mucus that can lead to obstructions in the respiratory and digestive systems. In the respiratory system, the abnormal mucus obstructs airways and creates conditions that lead to repeated infections in the lungs. In the digestive system, the abnormal mucus can obstruct ducts in various organs involved in the digestive process. This makes it difficult for people with CF to effectively digest food and absorb nutrients.

Signs and Symptoms

Since the disease does not affect everyone in the same way, specific signs and symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the disease. These may include:

? Failure to thrive in newborns

? Stunted or delayed growth

? Frequent respiratory infections and thick sputum

? Salty skin and abnormally salty sweat

? Weight loss

Treatment

Currently there is no cure for CF and the median life expectancy for a person with the disorder is 32 years. However, promising new treatments may allow people with CF to live into their 40s and beyond and to have fuller, more comfortable lives.

The main goal is to prevent infections, reduce the amount and thickness of secretions in the lungs, improve airflow and maintain adequate calories and nutrition.

To accomplish these objectives, treatments may include:

? Antibiotics to fight bacteria that cause lung infections

? Decongestants, bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory drugs

? Pancreatic enzymes to aid digestion

? Vitamins and other dietary supplements

? A diet rich in calories and protein

* The above information was gathered from web links, public material and the following Web sites: www.cysticfibrosis.com , www.medem.com and www.mayoclinic.com.

For more information, call the national office of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at (800) 344 4823 or write to: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute NHLBI Information Center, P O Box 30105 Bethesda, MD 20824-0105.

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