She puts the final touches on her makeup and stands to pick up a breathing machine and a purple vest with black straps. After four breathing treatments, she puts on the vest and plugs it into the machine behind her. It begins to shake her chest, and she giggles as the vest causes her voice to quiver. As many other college students are leaving for class, she approaches her dresser and pours 20 pills into her hand. She sits down on her bed and lines up the pills by color to decide which ones she wants to take first, adding a little excitement to her tiring morning routine. After taking her pills, Libby Hankins grabs her backpack and leaves for class.
Hankins has cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by a genetic defect that causes thick and sticky mucus to build up in her organs causing them to quit working properly. This disease has no cure, but Hankins does not let this stop her. She is a University of West Alabama cheerleader, a member of Phi Mu Fraternity, an ambassador and even the UWA homecoming queen.
Her morning routine is just the beginning of what Hankins must face every single day. She uses several inhalers throughout the day, takes pancreatic enzymes to help digest her food, wears hearing aids because she has little hearing and does an antibody infusion once a week to boost her immune system. Many times, Hankins avoids hospital visits by giving herself IVs through a port in her chest. Other times, infection can cause a significantly lowered lung function, and she has to be hospitalized. However, this is nothing new for Hankins.
“She hardly ever complains, even if she is exhausted from being a full-time student, cheerleader and doing all of her treatments for CF,” said Sheridan Galyon, Hankins’ best friend, sorority sister, and junior majoring in exercise science. “Most people in Libby’s situation would’ve given up by now, but Libby isn’t like that. She will never quit fighting.”
Since being diagnosed at the age of two, Hankins has had 17 surgeries to help her fight the disease. Through all of her experiences, she has stayed positive with the help of one special woman — her mom.
“My biggest supporter would absolutely be my mom. She has always taught me that I have to be tougher than it is,” Hankins said. “The last time I was in the hospital, I was too sick for her to lie down beside me, which is what we have done for years. Every night, she would pull her bed beside mine and we would fall asleep holding hands. Some people may think that this is silly or childish, but I don’t. That woman has saved me.”
According to Hankins, her parents always treated CF as a part of her life, not her whole life, even if it was hard to grow up with a disease that kept her from participating in many things that normal teenagers are able to do.
“If I ever started to pity myself, my mom was quick to remind me to count my blessings,” Hankins said. “There really is something good in every day if you just look for it.”
“Her positive attitude and determination are two of the qualities that make Libby an inspiration on the UWA campus,” said Jason Gardner, UWA cheerleading sponsor.
Hankins said she knew she wanted to attend UWA from her very first tour because everyone was so friendly and “it felt like home.” Attending college was her first step dealing with CF outside of her small high school.
At UWA, Hankins knew that she fit in perfectly. She spends her time in many organizations on campus including the UWA cheerleading squad, Phi Mu Fraternity and the Office of Admissions. Hankins’ involvement and radiant personality has caused many people on the UWA campus to get involved with CF awareness.
“The cheerleading squad, my Phi Mu sisters, the Exercise Science Club, and the UWA tennis team have all sponsored events to spread awareness,” Hankins said. “Their willingness to take on this cause leaves me speechless with appreciation.”
As a member of the cheerleading squad, Hankins is able to stay active and healthier than she has ever been. The exercise helps clear mucus from her lungs, which makes it easier to breathe. Staying active slows the rate of decline in lung function and keeps her body strong enough to more easily fight off infection.
“Mentally, cheerleading has given me a focus,” Hankins said. “I love every part of it, and it is something that CF can’t take away from me. It’s my chance to be just like everyone else.”
According to Gardner, she figures out how to overcome all challenges to make a positive out of it, and she works extremely hard to get where she is. He said they all know how hard she works to be a part of their family, and she never uses her disease as an excuse to miss out on anything.
“Libby was born a fighter and has fought for the things that many of us take for granted. She fights for every breath she takes,” said Bethany Brakefield, UWA alumna and former member of the UWA cheerleading squad.
According to Brakefield, there was one specific day of practice where they had pushed with everything they had. Everyone was about to give up, except for Hankins.
“It made everyone realize that our sickest teammate was by far our strongest. Of course Libby was exhausted. We all were, but she wasn’t about to give up,” Brakefield said.
According to Libby, cheerleading is her “happy place.” It is so easy for her to get overwhelmed and frustrated with everything that she has to deal with, but cheerleading allows her to forget all of that for a little while.
“When I am with them, I am not the girl with the disease. I’m just Libby,” Hankins said.
However, she is not the only one that feels this way. The members of the cheerleading squad, the coach and sponsor feel the same.
“We don’t look at Libby like she is a CF patient that is a cheerleader. She is a cheerleader that just happens to have CF. Cheerleading is first,” Gardner said.
Despite her time spent cheering, Hankins also works as a UWA ambassador giving campus tours to prospective students. The Admissions office loves having her as a part of their team, according to Danielle Buckalew, admissions counselor. Her involvement on campus and her experience and knowledge of UWA makes her a vital part of the ambassador team.
“One great aspect of having her work with us is the opportunity for her to share her story, not just with our office but with other prospective students and their families,” Buckalew said. “Libby is our ‘rock star’, our own campus celebrity, and she has become the face of CF for many of us.”
Despite all of her involvement and struggles with CF, Hankins can still light up the darkest room, according to Brakefield. She is always in a cheerful mood, and no one would ever know that she fights for every breath. Although her battle with CF is difficult, she has lived with it much easier than many people who have struggled with the same disease.
“I don’t have a good answer for why I am still here and others are not. I feel both blessed and guilty at the same time,” Hankins said. “I don’t in any way feel that I am more deserving of my life than any other person with CF. All I can do is focus on staying as healthy as I can and making every day count.”