At 20 years old, Mary Joe Fernandez was a rising star in the world of competitive tennis, finishing second in the Australian Open in singles and doubles. But behind the scenes, she was battling some troubling symptoms: shortness of breath, coughing and colds that wouldn’t go away. Doctors kept diagnosing bronchitis, but it never got better.
“I’d pull out of tournaments, or have to miss practices,” says Mary Joe, now a tennis broadcast commentator for ESPN and CBS Sports. “Coaches were saying, ‘You’re supposed to be a healthy young woman.’”
Finally, Mary Joe’s parents took her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she was diagnosed with asthma. Though she had a brief moment of panic where she wondered if it was the end of her professional tennis career, Mary Joe soon realized that the worst was behind her. Now that she had a diagnosis, her asthma became something she could manage.
“It can be scary when it’s tough to catch your breath,” she says. “But once you learn about the condition you can stay one step ahead of it.”
And that’s just what she did — well enough to win a gold and bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. (“I would hide my inhaler in my towel, because I didn’t want my opponent to see it and think, ‘Oh, I’ll just run her around a lot,’” she says with a laugh.)
Because of her high profile in sports, in 2010 Mary Joe jumped at the chance to become the spokesperson for Everyone Breathe (everyonebreathe.com), an educational initiative sponsored by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals in partnership with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “I thought I could reach a lot of people, and let them know that if you manage your symptoms, you can go back to living a healthy active lifestyle,” she says.
And Mary Joe had another experience she wanted to share — that of being a parent of an asthmatic. Her youngest child, 6-year-old Nicholas, also has the condition. While managing her own asthma has become routine, being in the parent role brought a whole new set of challenges. She travels frequently for work, which means she can’t always be around to monitor Nicholas and help him avoid his triggers.
“You have to be proactive and cover all your bases,” she says. “I’ll go in and talk to the school nurse, and leave an action plan for his caregiver that details exactly what they need to do. Nobody’s a better advocate for your child than you are.”
She encourages parents to visit everyonebreathe.com, where they can download a toolkit that includes a back-to-school checklist, a symptom and trigger tracker, and detailed action plan for caregivers to follow in the event of an attack.
By being prepared for any situation, Mary Joe is able to allow Nicholas to live an active life, which includes tennis as well as swimming.
“I probably have limited his activity more than my daughter, who plays like 10 sports,” Mary Joe says with a laugh. “But we work closely with his healthcare provider, so I can feel secure. If you know what the obstacles are, you can do your best to prevent them.”