Interview with James Dunlop
The founder of the Mauli Ola Foundation talks about cystic fibrosis, the ocean and tough surfers with big hearts.
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When Laguna Beach’s James Dunlop caught his first wave at age seven, his goal – like most surfers – was just to keep surfing. His life revolved around catching waves. “Like every other Southern California kid, it was all about the beach,” he says. In fact, he even chose a college, UC Santa Barbara, based on the great waves in the area. Then, everything changed, and surfing took on a whole new meaning. A higher meaning. It literally helped him change the lives of hundreds of kids suffering from cystic fibrosis.
Dunlop, with his brother Charles, a gifted scientist, had co-founded Ambry Genetics in 1999, and it had grown into what it is today: a premier genetics testing lab for mapping the gene mutations responsible for CF. And while they worked passionately to help find a cure for the degenerative disease, they also wanted to help CF patients enjoy life now. The answer came when the brothers theorized, based on a medical journal article, that the salt air of the ocean would help open up the airwaves of CF patients so they could breathe more easily. They decided to take kids surfing. It worked better than they had hoped, and it was fun, something CF kids don’t get a whole lot of.
The Mauli Ola Foundation was thus born, and to date, has held 50 surfing events for CF patients all around the country. Thanks to the foundation, everyone from Hawaiian chargers like Kala Alexander and Kalani Robb to surfing world champs like Sunny Garcia and Kelly Slater are routinely pushing CF patients into waves. “Monday through Friday, we work on the genomic level, and on the weekends, we take the kids surfing. That’s what Mauli Ola is all about,” says Dunlop. Here, he tells how surfing is changing lives.
Why did you start the Mauli Ola Foundation?
We started Mauli Ola in 2007 after my brother came across an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about saline treatments helping cystic fibrosis patients. We had been working on cystic fibrosis multi-gene sequencing and a cure for CF at our company, but we’re also both lifelong surfers, so we decided to bring our two passions together and take some kids surfing.
And it took off?
Yes. We just wanted to take some kids surfing, and our first event was with [pro surfer] Jamie O’Brien in Newport Beach. And then, people just started calling, and the next thing we knew, we were getting calls from Texas, Vermont, all over. So we decided to go for it. Today, we’ve taken over 800 patients surfing and we just held our 50th event.
Why does the ocean help CF patients?
It’s a high saline environment, and the saline gets in the airwaves and the lungs and breaks down and helps to expel the mucus. Essentially, the salt brings up the mucus so they can get it out of their lungs and breathe easier. In the hospital, they do something called hypersonic saline [treatments] where they breathe in warm salt air while at the same time wearing a vest that bangs on their back to discharge the mucus. Going in the ocean is the natural equivalent of that treatment.
Can it help more than temporarily?
Yes. A great example of how powerful the ocean and surfing can be is a 21-year-old boy who moved here from Chicago because he heard about the Mauli Ola events. He’s been surfing every day since he got here and his lung function has gone from 85% to 95%.
Why does Mauli Ola have such strong ties to Hawaii?
My brother and I have been going to the North Shore [of Oahu] to surf for as long as I can remember. My father, who had a foundation of his own, suggested that we have a Hawaiian name, and so we contacted a Hawaiian priest, Tom Stone, and he came up with Mauli Ola, which means “breath of life” in Hawaiian. It reflects our love of Hawaii and the Hawaiians’ love of family and the ocean.
How do your events work?
We partner with a surf school, then go to a children’s hospital or a CF clinic and invite the patients. And now that we’ve done so many, families are feeling a little more secure. But that took time because one of the things that’s very serious with this disease is cross-contamination. It only happens between CF patients, but it means that they never really get together. But we keep all the kids about 10 feet away from one another, and we had a doctor from UC San Diego design our protocols. That’s another reason these events have become so popular, because these families rarely get to talk to one another, but here, while their kids are out in the water, all the parents exchange information and it’s become sort of a support group.
It must not only be challenging but a little scary for some of these kids and their parents to venture out into the surf for the first time.
Absolutely, but guys like Buttons, Kalani, Sunny, Kala [all surfing legends]… these guys are so talented and comfortable in the ocean that it makes the parents and the kids that much more comfortable. So they can really get into the experience. Especially when the kids see pictures of, say, Kala on a 25-foot wave, they feel pretty safe with him. That gives them confidence.
How many events will you have this year?
Twenty-three, all around the country. California, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, then to Hawaii. Basically a national tour. We rent a big bus and get all the guys on there and set up children’s hospital stops along the way. And now more and more of the boys want to get on board. We [left] here on August 14, and we’ll go to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, then to El Paso, then to Austin, New Orleans, Coco Beach, Florida…
The bus actually travels the states?
Yeah, basically, like a rock band tour bus. The bus has 12 bunks so we don’t have to get hotel rooms – we pull into a hotel so we can take showers, but that’s it. And we feel like rock stars sometimes, especially with guys like Sunny Garcia and Kalani Robb joining. And we have had all the major surf companies – Volcom, Billabong, Quiksilver, O’Neill, and Rusty – give us clothes and backpacks for the kids, as well as Etnies with shoes, Electric Visuals sunglasses and Skull Candy headphones to each patient. It’s great to make these kids feel special. It’s nuts. But it’s great.
Your team captain, Kala Alexander, has built a career on being a heavy, in and out of the water. How does that square with him apparently having a big heart as well?
Kala is definitely a tough guy. He speaks his mind and is very protective about stuff he loves or cares about. And yes, before you’d hear the name Kala and it could be a little scary. But he’s actually one of the nicest guys of all time. In fact, he’s been taking CF kids and families out surfing on his own without telling anyone. He just loves to help the kids, and I’ve seen how much it’s enriched his life over the past three years. And of course with Kala on board, all the boys [the Hawaiian surfing heavies] signed up. So don’t be fooled by the scary reputation, Kala has been awesome and a huge part of this foundation.
You must have had some life-changing experiences yourself.
There are actually a couple examples of things that have been pretty profound. There was a seven-year-old girl, Taylor, a few years ago from Orange County. She was really fed up with the disease. These kids have to take 40 to 50 pills and do three to four breathing treatments every day. But she didn’t want to do her schoolwork, her athletics or do her treatments. She was just defeated. Her parents turned to Mauli Ola. She came down and Kala took her out at Laguna and she just loved it. And that experience turned her around. Her parents told us that the very next day she was up and wanted to go to school and take her pills and was completely positive again. She became happy and motivated again and she even wanted to become a marine biologist and pro surfer.