No Limits Maddy Conklin '20

In the summer of 2005, Maddy Conklin was just an average 6-year old. She loved playing outside, hanging out with her friends and participating in a handful of youth sport, including soccer, basketball, softball and lacrosse. At the time, she had a 5-year old sister, Frankie, and a newborn sister, Kate.

Less than a month after Kate was born, the family’s pediatrician visited their home with some troubling news. Results of the baby’s postnatal genetic testing showed the youngest Conklin daughter had Cystic Fibrosis (CF). But the worst was yet to come. The pediatrician informed Conklin’s parents that CF is an inherited disorder and the whole family needed to get genetic testing.

Within a month, the results came back – all three girls had CF – and their lives were about to change significantly.

“It was scary because I didn’t know what it meant, and I worried that I’d have to stop playing sports,” says Conklin. “Looking it up it was so frightening because a lot of kids with it are stuck in the hospital or they’re home-schooled, and I did not want my life to change at all.”

Maddy (top) and Frankie at Disney's Field Hockey Showcase.

A genetic disease that causes severe damage to the lungs, CF affects the cells that produce mucus, sweat and digestive juices, causing them to be sticky and thick. As a result, the mucus clogs the lungs’ airways and traps bacteria, leading to infections, extensive lung damage and eventually, respiratory failure. CF can also affect the pancreas, causing problems in the digestive system and other organs in the body.

Conklin counts herself lucky that her CF only affects her lungs, but a late diagnosis means that she went six years without the treatments and therapy that help to keep the lungs healthy.

“All of the treatments are preventative and precautions, because it’s all about preserving the lung function they have now,” says Conklin’s mother, Holly. “For Maddy, she’s great. She has great lung function. Maddy’s on a great path, but she has to do her treatments to stay that way for as long as she can. Right now she’s good, and if she does the right things for her body then she’ll be in better shape longer.”

Conklin’s treatments include airway clearance and inhaled medicine. To help loosen and get rid of the thick mucus, at least once a day Conklin dons an inflatable vest that vibrates the chest at a high frequency. She also uses a nebulizer to administer medicines that include inhaled steroids, bronchial dilators and antibiotics to fight lung infections.

She also gets plenty of exercise, mostly as a member of the Cornell field hockey team.

Despite the CF diagnosis, Conklin makes it look easy. She glides over the pitch, moving effortlessly in an incredibly demanding position – midfield – running an average of six miles during the course of a game.

“I had no idea about her condition until her parents told me,” says head coach Donna Hornibrook. “I had seen her play in high school and thought she was outstanding. There was nothing about her play that indicated that she had a problem with her lungs. But her parents were very up front about it and told me she had CF the very first time we spoke.”

Being honest about her condition during the recruiting process was a top priority for Conklin. While the news wasn’t well-received by every coaching staff she told, the Cornell staff was unfazed by the revelation.

“I didn’t have any reservations about Maddy,” says Hornibrook. “I had no way of knowing if she would be an every-day, every-minute player, but I thought even if she needed to come off the bench or play limited minutes, she was still going to be a really solid addition for us. And it turns out we were right.”

Conklin just wrapped up an outstanding freshman campaign with the Big Red. She played in all 17 games, averaging more than 40 minutes per contest, and she started seven of Cornell’s final nine games of the season.

“Day-to-day she doesn’t make it a factor,” says Hornibook. “She lives her life quietly and goes on with it. She doesn’t let CF hold her back from anything she wants to do, which is amazing. I think she’s really very inspirational.”

Since her diagnosis, Conklin has actively tried to inspire others, mostly as a Cohen Children's Hospital ambassador.

Maddy, with younger sisters Frankie and Kate, supporting the Cohen Children's Medical Center.

“My biggest thing is showing other children that you shouldn’t let something stop you,” she says. “You can still do what you love.”

Conklin is also an active fundraiser for Make-A-Wish, and she spent her senior year in high school as an intern with the organization. Her connection with the foundation began a year after her diagnosis when she was granted a wish for a family vacation in Hawaii.

After the once-in-a-lifetime experience of surfing, swimming with dolphins, and scuba diving, Conklin and her sister Frankie have consistently held fundraising events so that others can have a similar opportunity.

Each year, the pair organizes a team to participate in the Walk For Wishes, while also organizing events around North Shore High School field hockey and lacrosse games. During her internship, she assisted with the Macy’s Believe Campaign.

“Hawaii was such an amazing experience that I wanted to give back,” Conklin says. “By working with Make-A-Wish, I can set an example for other children.”

Maddy and her family in Hawaii.

Between her diagnosis and her desire to inspire children, it’s no surprise that Conklin is majoring in Biology and Society, with tentative plans to attend medical school. While she hasn’t decided on what type of doctor she wants to be, she is leaning toward something that involves children.

Until then, she will continue to do her daily treatments, focus on her school work, and continue to grow as a field hockey player. And she will do it all while focusing on the positive and defying expectations.

“When people find out that I have CF, their first response is always ‘Oh no. I never would have known. That’s terrible,’” says Conklin. “But there are people in such worse situations. And someday that could be me, but I’m so on top of my medicine and treatments.

“I just don’t let CF stop me.”


Patrick Shanahan, Holly Conklin

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