August 2, 2013

Steve Solloway: Drew a true athlete, who never quit

Ashley Drew never caught a pass for Jack Cosgrove's University of Maine football team. She never threw a hip check for Maine's hockey team, riding an opponent off the puck.

Ashley Drew’s battle for life ended Thursday, but she’ll forever be remembered as the vivacious blonde who served as an inspiration for so many.

2010 Universityof Maine photo

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That didn't mean she wouldn't, if only in her dreams. She had the soul of an athlete with the strength to persevere. That she weighed barely 90 pounds and lived with cystic fibrosis since birth was always beside the point.

Drew died Thursday morning at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, 411 days after getting the double lung transplant that was to sustain her life. Shortly after, she returned to Scarborough to walk on the beach near her home. She breathed easily. No one knew that a fungal infection, aspergillus, had invaded her body.

She suffered a stroke and was rushed back to the hospital in Boston last summer. Her prognosis was grim. She fought back. But for every victory there was a setback.

"God's got this," she wrote in a blog she started on her Air for Ashley website on Facebook while waiting for her transplant. That portion of her daily writings lasted 538 days before she received her new lungs. After the stroke, her mother, Joy, took over the blog. "God's got this" was more than a catchy phrase. It was the foundation of the family's unshakeable faith.

The blog became must reading for hundreds of her growing community of friends. I started reading around Day 60 of the wait. I didn't miss a day thereafter.

On Day 451 she laughed at herself for sleeping much of the day. Her lungs were working at less than 20 percent efficiency by then. "The energy was all saved for watching the final UMaine hockey game against Merrimack (in March 2012)."

The game was televised from Alfond Arena on the Maine campus. Drew chastised the contingent of Merrimack fans. "The students don't know how to taunt appropriately It probably isn't smart to be an army of 150 chanting 'this is our house' while playing at another school's facilities." She wrote that she had more respect for archrival New Hampshire but couldn't resist calling that school the University of No Hardware, referring to the absence of NCAA hockey trophies in the trophy case.

"Ah! If you can't tell, that game got me all worked up and really exhausted. Hockey is just not good for my health!"

During her stays in the pulmonary unit at Portland's Maine Medical Center fighting lung infections, staff moved Drew to a room at the end of the hall and closed the door when Maine football or hockey games were televised. "They knew it wasn't time to check my blood pressure and heart rate," Drew once told me.

I met her for the first time in May 2010 at the Jeff Cole spring scrimmage at Alfond Stadium. She had graduated the year before from Maine with a degree in music and a GPA of 3.77, and wanted to continue work for her master's degree. She had played the French horn in the pep band, the tenor sax in the jazz band and the flute in the university symphony.

She had hid her cystic fibrosis from fellow students. She told them she had asthma. She intentionally picked up the French horn, sax and flute to prove she was just as strong as the next musician.

Cosgrove met with Drew that day at the scrimmage. "What struck me was how much respect and admiration her bandmates, her teammates had for her. She was so tiny with such great strength and skill. I knew what she could do as a musician. She was a great athlete."

Days before, Cosgrove went to Steve Jones, the athletic department's longtime equipment manager. "Do we have a game-day No. 9 jersey for her? We've got to give her No. 9. Jonesy found one. He got back to me with a big smile."

The strongest and toughest of Maine's football players wear No. 9. Michael Cole, Maine's star defensive end, will wear it this season.

Last August, when Drew was fighting for her life against the aspergillus, I called Tyler Patterson, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive tackle from Owls Head. Drew had perched on his shoulder pads in 2010 for a photo with the entire Maine team. I wanted to know if Patterson remembered the vivacious blond woman.

He had a copy of the photo on the wall of his apartment. "I look at it every day," said Patterson then. "She inspires me. When I start thinking I have a problem playing football, I look at her and realize I don't have a problem.

"She gives me hope."

The blogs, always written with startling clarity and honesty, were hopeful. Joy Drew didn't mind writing about getting lost on her first walks near the Spaulding Rehab unit near Boston's North Station. Ashley was transferred there for a time after her health stabilized, and she worked to regain speech and movement.

Thoughts on the Patriots, hurricanes and winter storms. Thoughts on nerve pain, appetites, the kindness of others and the Bruins. News of another, more ominous turn in Ashley's health, and hope it was one more roadblock to hurdle. God's got this.

The sad irony is for much of the 411 days, the new lungs did their job.

Friday afternoon, after Drew died from a much more damaging stroke, I texted her father, Tom Drew. We live our lives through examples set by others, I wrote. Your family has been an example for me.

I had said the same thing to Lee Roy, father of Travis, when he asked many years ago why the Portland Press Herald was still interested in writing about his son. Because Travis could have been my son, everyone's son. Lee and his wife, Brenda, could have been us, are us.

Ashley Drew and her family fought for her life with grace, faith and humor. Their passion for living should be our passion.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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