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Some students, teachers at local school affected by rare disease

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CARTER COUNTY, TN (WJHL) - Thursday, News Channel 11 told you four students at  Hunter Elementary School in Carter County have ties with Cystic Fibrosis. One student who went to the school died from the disease last month. 

WJHL wanted to know -- is this a coincidence or could there be environmental factors?

We talked with a local pediatrician to find out if it could be something environmental in Carter County triggering this.

“There are environmental factors that affect the health of somebody who has Cystic Fibrosis, but there are no environmental factors that cause the children to have Cystic Fibrosis. It's all genetics,” Dr. Tom Makres, a pediatrician with Bristol Pediatrics said.

Makres said those environmental factors can be allergies, and bacteria in the air, but nothing unique to Carter County.

Makres says it's simply a coincidence this many kids have this rare disease at one school. Students and teachers at Hunter Elementary School on Hope Street, are realizing that's exactly what they need most right now.

Last month, Bethany Holder, a student at Hunter Elementary, died from complications with Cystic Fibrosis.

After her death, students and teachers starting realizing she wasn’t the only one at school affected by the disease.

Here’s a little background on Cystic Fibrosis (CF):

  • It’s a disease that affects less than one percent of Americans.
  • According to the CDC there are 30,000 Americans with CF.
  • It's an inherited, chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system.
  • The average life expectancy of someone with CF is 30 years old, and as of right now there isn't a cure.
"I had never really known anyone with cystic fibrosis until I had Bethany Holder in my class," Amy Grubb, a first grade teacher at Hunter Elementary said. "She was just precious, a precious little girl, everyone loved Bethany, she was very kind."

After Bethany’s death, "We begin to realize especially with Bethany passing away how prevalent it was in this school," said Grubb. 

There’s a teacher who lost family from the disease.

"It’s a sad disease that affects your family members," second grade teacher Bill Jones said. "I lost 3 brothers."

There’s another teacher at Hunter Elementary who's son was diagnosed at six months old.

"When they first told me my son has it, they said the life expectancy was 30 years old," Wendy Lowe said.

And three students living with the disease, one is first grader Devin Wellman.

Seeing Devin on the playground you would think he was just like any other carefree first grader.

"The misconception is that someone could look perfectly healthy, but they’re not, it affects all the organs in the body, it affects the pancreas, the liver and the lungs," Lowe said.

"You’d think these people are fine and you don't realize how they’re struggling," Lowe said.

"I remember them telling me that I had CF after they got done with all of it and I was really scared," first grader Devin Wellman said.

Because of just how many are affected by Cystic Fibrosis at their school, teachers and students decided to put together a Cystic Fibrosis walk-a-thon in May.

"We hope it'll be just eye opening for the students that this'll be something they can do to help their friends. I mean their friends have this disease," Amanda Barnett, kindergarten teacher helping organize the walk-a-thon said.

"We want the community and our kids here to know about it, we want them to be educated and we want Bethany's family to know that we love her and that we miss her and we want to do this in her memory, and at the same time we want to honor those students who are living with it from day to day," Grubb, who is also helping organize the walk-a-thon said.

For some having so many in the school affected brings some comfort.

"It helps in a way knowing that you have other people to talk to," Lowe said.

And for others brings a little fear.

"It makes me feel a little bit scared just to know that other people have passed away from it," Devin said.

But he said what makes him happy and gives him hope is people helping however they can to find a cure for little kids with a big life to live just like him.

The walk-a-thon is May 9th at Hunter Elementary School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

All of the money raised will go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for research towards a cure.

If you want to donate to the walk-a-thon you can send a check to Hunter Elementary PTO and send it to the school:

145 Hope St, Elizabethton, TN 37643

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