SALT LAKE CITY — Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, otherwise known as IPF, is a rare and fatal lung disease.
It is currently estimated to affect over 132,000 Americans, with an additional 44,000 people diagnosed in the United States every year.
The disease, for which there is no cure, results in scarring of the lungs for an undetermined reason.
Over time, the scarring gets worse and before too long it becomes hard for a person to breath deeply. The lungs simply cannot take in enough oxygen. Something as simple as blowing a bubblegum bubble becomes an impossibility.
The disease is fatal, three to five years being the life expectancy following a diagnosis.
There was a time when former New York Yankees great Bernie Williams was unaware of IPF.
He was a star Major League Baseball player, part of the great ’90s Yankees teams that won four World Series championships. Williams was a five time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove award winner and an MVP in six separate seasons, along with being a Silver Slugger.
In the midst of that storied career, IPF was introduced to Williams. His father, Bernabé Williams Sr., was diagnosed with the disease, a diagnosis that took five years to correctly determine.
“He was diagnosed while I was playing,” Williams said. “It took five years for them to get the correct diagnosis. We took him from doctor to doctor. After he was diagnosed, we didn’t even know what the disease was. We kept an optimistic attitude without really knowing that it was going to be the thing that was going to take him away from us. We thought he would get better. We thought it was like pneumonia or bronchitis. What we didn’t know is he was going to die from it.”
In 2001, Bernabé Williams Sr. died because of complications from IPF. And while Bernie Williams would go on to play baseball for an additional five years, a new passion, a commitment to raising awareness about IPF, awaited him the moment he retired.
That passion brought him to Salt Lake City Monday afternoon, to Smith’s Ballpark, the home of the Salt Lake Bees.
“I am here to raise awareness for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF),” Williams said. “It was imperative to have this campaign, to make people aware of this. The numbers are real, this disease exists, and we want to educate and encourage people to see their physicians if they have some of the symptoms attributed to IPF.
"I was like every little kid, my dad was a superman. He was my mentor, my hero,” said Williams. “To see him deteriorate like that, the last two or three months of his life with this devastating disease, was really hard.”
Starting last year, Williams, in an attempt to raise awareness, parlayed his baseball career and subsequent fame into an IPF awareness tour.
First came the cities of Major League Baseball.
“Last year we took the initiative to Major League Baseball,” said Williams, “to some of the major cities in the country. This year we are going to more of a grass-roots level, going to minor league stadiums, taking into considerations the amounts of cases of IPF in the different cities. It seems to be an easy connection, because of my relationship and connection with the game of baseball. It is a good opportunity to do this, and it gets me to reconnected with my roots.”
On Monday, Williams and the Breathless Blowout initiative, a partnership between Boehringer Ingelheim and MiLB, stopped in Salt Lake City.Comment on this story
Williams certainly appreciated the stop — he performed the national anthem on his guitar prior to the Bees' contest against the El Paso Chihuahuas and called Salt Lake City itself beautiful (it was his first visit) and the view from Smith’s Ballpark breathtaking. He was all about IPF awareness.
“It was really hard to see my dad go, but if one good thing could come from it, it is that it has made me aware of the situation and given me the chance to raise awareness. I think he is looking down and hopefully smiling down at the fact that I am raising awareness and trying to educate people about the disease.”