When Zach Patron hosted the traditional Chelmsford volleyball team dinner, his teammates got a glimpse into the senior cocaptain’s daily routine.
Before his meal, Zach swallowed more than 10 pills, raising eyebrows, concern, and an obvious question.
“I do it to stay healthy,’’ he said quietly.
It was not until that moment that the squad discovered their friend and leader was battling cystic fibrosis.
“Nobody had really seen me take my pills before,’’ he said. “I might have taken them before or after they were all here. I grabbed my pill box and dumped them in my hand and it was clear there was attention on what I was doing.
“It felt good to have everyone know. It wasn’t a big deal to them just like it’s not a big deal to me.’’
Patron, 18, is one of more than 30,000 people in the United States suffering from the life-threatening, genetic disease that attacks the lungs and digestive tract, diminishing the ability to breathe and eat. He takes 50 to 60 pancreatic enzyme supplements each day to aid digestion.
Along with a labor-intensive routine, Patron uses volleyball to keep his lungs healthy.
“Aerobic exercise gets the heart rate up, which means movement in the lungs,’’ said Dr. Allen Lapey, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cystic Fibrosis Center.
Patron has thrived on the Lions’ squad, earning Merrimack Valley All-Conference honors this spring. Chelmsford was 12-8 in the regular season and defeated Lexington, 3-1, Friday night in the first round of the MIAA tournament during which Patron had 12 digs and 11 service points.
He goes through much more than the perfunctory warm-up to prepare himself to play. Before practice each day, Patron fights off the mucus buildup with aerosolized medicine through a nebulizer. This 45-minute process stimulates coughing to clear the body’s airways.
“When it comes time to do something I’m going to give everything I can to do that,’’ said Patron. “Not everyone has the grit to go after something until they get it or it becomes unattainable.’’
When coach Matt Dibble discovered Zach had cystic fibrosis, he lauded his cocaptain’s maturity.
“He doesn’t use it as a crutch or to gain sympathy, and it explains a lot that even though [the players are] together for hours at a time, they don’t know everything about their teammates,’’ Dibble said.
Added Lapey, “Things like this can deteriorate a family, but Zach’s family has really succeeded in their support and optimism.’’
Matthew and Cheri Patron were braced for their younger son’s diagnosis. Both parents are carriers of cystic fibrosis, meaning Zach had a 25 percent chance of being born with the disease. Their older son, Tyler, also has CF.
“These drugs have come a long way and have improved the quality of life so that my kids are able to live a normal life, for us anyway,’’ said Cheri. “We don’t know any different.
“It was scary and devastating because we didn’t know anything about it or anyone with it. We only knew what we read and that wasn’t good. At the time, medications and treatments were only prolonging lives while buying time to find a cure.’’
Tyler wasn’t expected to live past age 18. Now 23, he is graduating from UMass-Amherst with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.
He is searching for a cure.
Tyler’s experience with CF fueled a passion for biomedical engineering and he works as a lab technician with the Flatley Discovery Lab, a Boston-based independent, nonprofit organization that collaborates with Northeastern University to develop a cure.
“He’s doing research to cure his own disease,’’ said Cheri.
Zach is following in his brother’s footsteps. He has been accepted to UMass-Lowell, UMass-Amherst, and the University of New Hampshire.
“I think he saw the interests in our older son and how it lit him up being a part of it and what an amazing concept it is,’’ said Cheri.
While learning about ways to battle his disease, both in the classroom and on the court, CF is not what defines Zach.
“I keep it pretty well under wraps because I don’t want people to think of me as someone with cystic fibrosis because it isn’t a key component to what makes me,’’ he said.
Inside the halls of Chelmsford High, Patron is an honors student. On the court, he is a leader. As the Lions prepared for a postseason run, he was able to make an impact on the program.
“I set a goal at the beginning of the season that everyone on the team will be better after this year with me as a captain,’’ he said. “Not just as a player but as a person.
“Leaving a legacy is something you can’t put value on and it’s really important to me.’’
The biggest lesson Zach has learned is that there is no excuse not to follow your dreams.
“If you have CF or any other disease or condition you think is limiting to you, you have to do the best you can and walk away satisfied knowing you did what you could,’’ he said.
To Cheri, her son is funny, compassionate, and very athletic.
“If kids can look at an 18-year-old captain of a volleyball team, they can think, ‘Maybe it’ll be OK.’ ’’ she said.