Dancing on Air

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Dancer Adam Young Defies the Odds Battling Cystic Fibrosis

Adam Young is a 32-year old ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary dancer from California with cystic fibrosis (CF) who received a double lung transplant at UCLA in May 2013. He began dancing at the age of six in Riverside, California and won national competitions in the U.S. and Australia at the age of 17, as well as the Kennedy Center Emerging Young Artist Award Scholarship at age 18. He was offered a full scholarship to the renowned Julliard School and the Ailey School in New York but was unable to relocate due to CF complications. Graduating from the University of California, Irvine with honors on full scholarship as a dance major in 2003, he went on to dance with the Nashville Ballet for two seasons. He trained at the National Conservatoire de Paris and has danced, judged and taught throughout the United States and performed internationally in France, Germany, Australia, Canada and Mexico. His professional career was put on hold in 2006 when cystic fibrosis caused his lung capacity to fall below 40%. Adam’s determination to overcome an addiction to pharmaceutical drugs through a 12-step program in 2010 allowed him to receive his 2013 lung transplant, which has given Adam a chance to return to the stage and continue pursuing his passion for dance. TJ talked to Adam about his inspirational story.

TJ: When did cystic fibrosis really start affecting your dance career?
YOUNG: When I was 22 I graduated and moved to Tennessee to dance with the Nashville Ballet for a couple of seasons. I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia and missed a bunch of performances, so at the end of the second season, they said, “We can’t hire you back.” That’s when I realized I’m not able to do this anymore. I can’t dance with a company from eight to six. So my wife and I moved back to California. For another two or three years I choreographed and did some teaching and judging. Then it got real bad. During my last couple of months of dancing, my lung capacity fell to 1/3 of a normal person’s. At that time, even though I knew I was dying and wasn’t physically able to do it, I agreed to be a soloist in a piece called “Fiesta.” It was a very demanding piece that made all the dancers throw up the first few times we ran it. I made it through the performance but as the curtain slowly came down after our second bow, I just collapsed to the floor. We didn’t really know each other, so the other dancers asked if I was OK and then did their own thing while I laid there covered in my own sweat, humiliation and defeat. I couldn’t get up! After a few minutes, one of the stage hands came over and said, “Hey man, I know you’re tired but we have to change the set.” I literally crawled off the stage leaving a little sweat snail trail and just laid at the side of the stage for another 10 minutes. My choreographer came over and talked with me until I could stand up. My wife and family saw the performance and said, “Something’s wrong with Adam.” They then came over to my house and had an intervention. They said,“You need to stop.This dance and stage has been saving your life and now it’s killing you.” That’s when I went on disability and within three months I was on oxygen permanently 24/7. That was seven years ago.

TJ: Can you tell us about the lung transplant?
YOUNG: Well, first of all, I’m a recovering addict. I had been addicted to pharmaceutical drugs for a long time since college and it got really bad when I stopped dancing. My family knew I had been using but I hid it as drug users do. After three years of being on disability and being on oxygen the entire time, I was really sick, at about 28% of my lung capacity, and my wife finally left me after finding out I had another relapse. My family kicked me out and my doctor said, “Look, this isn’t easy for me to say and I’m sorry I have to tell you this but if you relapse again, don’t bother trying to get a lung transplant because they’re not going to give it to an addict who keeps relapsing.” It was basically a death sentence. I had to get clean or I was going to die very soon. That was my bottom and I got clean. One year later I got on the list, and after a long two years I finally got the call I had been waiting for forever. Until then I honestly believed I was not going to get that call and I had come to the acceptance that I was going to die. Then out of the blue on May 30, 2013 the call from UCLA came. The voice said very calmly, “We want to let you know that the doctor is requesting you to come down to UCLA. We have a set of lungs for you.” I got the phone call around 5:30 p.m. and was on the operation table by midnight!

TJ: How long was the surgery process?
YOUNG: About eight hours! I was let out of the hospital about three weeks later.

TJ: Do you know who you received the lungs from?
YOUNG: All I know is he was a 5’10”, 25-year old male. I plan to give his family a year to grieve but want to contact them through UCLA next May to thank them.

TJ: Now that you’ve had a lung transplant, is there anything you need to be careful of?
YOUNG: Yes, I have a lot of restrictions now. For example, I can’t ever have sushi again because I can’t eat anything raw, and I love sushi! I’m 60% more sensitive to sunlight now because of my medication. No tattoos and no gardening. I have to stay away from upturned soil because there’s a bacteria that lives in the soil that is deadly to CFers. Also, no soda because acid reflux causes rejection.

TJ: I saw that you performed before the transplant while hooked up to oxygen?
YOUNG: Yes, that’s right. I had stopped dancing for about three years. Then one day I got a call from a Riverside Community College professor named Mark Haines who said he would love it if I would come and choreograph there. I told him I was on oxygen and he said, “Yeah, I know! I want to use that.” The artist inside of me immediately said, “Damn it! Why didn’t I think of that before?” So I got a long tube so I could move around with it. Then we wanted to do something about my breathing and we couldn’t get it right. He was listening to me struggle for breath during rehearsal, and he said, “Adam, this is what the audience needs to hear. We should just put a body mic on you.” Again, I said, “Damn! That’s brilliant!” It was like watching someone dance to a heartbeat, which I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do. Listening to that primal part of us was an amazing connection. Mark Haines is helping me produce my next show now. It’s going to be a one-man show about my disease and my recovery. I’m going to have a phone in the front corner of the stage and every once in a while a light will go off and you’ll hear an answering machine that’s going to help tell my story through a few people in my life. The last piece is all about waiting for that phone to ring. It will show me doing everything within my power to get that phone to ring and realizing that it’s not within my power

TJ: When is the show?
YOUNG: It may take up to 18 months but we’re hoping for next summer.

TJ: What are you doing to get your strength back?
YOUNG: Right now all I can do is physical therapy. I can’t walk more than a mile on a treadmill. In December I can start dancing and working out as my body can handle it. Hopefully by next summer I’ll be in shape. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #273. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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