Borrowed Time

Twenty-five very sweaty people stand facing themselves in a mirror, pushing their heads into their knees. Because this is Bikram yoga, the room is hot — easily 115 degrees, hotter than the July morning outside the central Phoenix studio. The room smells faintly of feet. The teacher, Brooke Sterling, moves her tiny frame about the floor like a spider, guiding the students through their poses, correcting their positions, offering encouraging words and the occasional wisecrack.

As the bodies bend through postures, she stands up and asks, "Does anyone need more heat?"

The class is silent and she starts to laugh.

"Does anyone need a smack upside the head?"

This time the class laughs along with her.

Brooke Sterling is a woman in love with life. She's thin and good-looking. She owns a successful yoga studio. She's funny and well-liked.

And she's dying.

Sterling has cystic fibrosis. She is 37. The fact that she is alive at all is a medical wonder. The fact that she has not used traditional medicine to treat her disease for 10 years is nothing short of a miracle. She will look you in the eye and tell you, "Yoga is the reason I am alive today," and she might be right. She really has blown past her life expectancy many times over.

Still, there is no denying one simple fact: Without a double-lung transplant like the one her brother endured, Brooke is living on borrowed time.

Brooke is not the only Sterling with cystic fibrosis. Her younger brother Jordan, 31, also has the disease. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, each time two carriers conceive, there is a one in four chance of passing the disease on to their child. The Sterlings have three kids. Two have CF. Statistically speaking, this is not supposed to happen, but this certainly isn't the type of family to sit around and bitch about it.

"We don't have powwows about CF," says Brooke.

And outside the family circle, the Sterlings have stayed quiet about cystic fibrosis as well. For all its growth, Phoenix is still a small town, and the Sterlings are well-known. Walter Sterling, the father, made his way as a successful commercial real estate broker. Middle son Walter III is an award-winning chef. The kids' mother, Kim Sterling-Heflin, worked for Phelps Dodge in stockholder relations and sat on the board of directors for Ballet Arizona for many years; she's now president of the board of Actors Theatre. Their stepmother, Terry Greene Sterling, is an award-winning journalist and former New Times writer. Jordan is building a name for himself as a loan officer. And Brooke's got her yoga studio.

But there are some things they just can't, or won't, talk about. One look into Walter's eyes when he talks about his children reveals years of worry and pain.

"Diseases in families are private," he says matter-of-factly. He's agreed to talk about it at all only at Brooke's insistence. It's clear this is not a comfortable subject for him to face.

Same with Kim. She's pulled together and professional, managing to look cool, even in the middle of summer, in all black. When she talks about her kids and what it was like to watch them grow and struggle, tears well in her eyes, though she's too elegant to let them fall at a Starbucks.

Walter and Kim divorced in 1991. No one talks about the details, though Kim says it is common in families that face catastrophic disease. Brooke only says they're both happily remarried and decent to each other.

So far, they all have survived. After 30 years of living with cystic fibrosis, the Sterlings have had to come up with tricks to handle a disease that could have taken two of the family's members at any time.

Jordan has dealt with his disease the way his doctors recommended, and, after getting progressively sicker throughout his early 20s, endured a double lung transplant five and a half years ago.

Brooke has chosen a different way to deal, using yoga and natural medicine, including acupuncture and natural enzymes, to stay alive.

Caught between these two is a family — mother, father, stepparents and brother — struggling to deal with their own fears and concerns, especially when it comes to Brooke.

Her family respects her approach to managing CF, but each member admits concern.

"She's sustained life longer because of yoga," says her brother Walter Sterling III. "But I don't think yoga is going to save her. That's her decision. There's no point in talking to her about it — it's almost disrespectful at this point."

Jordan's life expectancy is now close to normal. Brooke? She was supposed to die several years ago.

Brooke understands her family's fears, though she's not changing her stance.

"They know this is who I feel I am and what's going to be effective for me, and that's not changing year after year," she says. "I mean, I was supposed to kick off around 30, and as I move further away from that, my family perceives I'm struggling. I know it's hard because they see a successful solution in Jordan. If I were my parents, I think it would be challenging to deal with the fact that I'm hoping to deal with this without a lung transplant."

The year is 1968, and Kim Sterling has just given birth to her first child, at Tacoma General Hospital in Washington. Chronic disease is the last thing on her mind. Walter and Kim's baby girl is tiny — born a month early, little Brooke weighs just under five pounds — but she looks healthy. The Sterlings bring their daughter home and settle into a routine of diaper changes and late-night feedings, but Kim feels right away that something isn't right.

"I began to notice that it was difficult for her to gain weight," she says now, looking back. "Everything went straight through her."

The family's pediatrician in Washington told the Sterlings he thought Brooke had celiac disease — a condition that makes it difficult for the digestive system to process food. He told Kim to put her daughter on a diet that excluded gluten and assured her Brooke would either "grow out of it" or, at the very least, the condition would become more manageable.

Life kept moving. Brooke learned to walk and talk. Though her digestion problems continued, Kim says Brooke was a curious, alert child. In a photo taken when she was 3, she looks healthy, her straw-colored hair pulled into pigtails, but there's an expression in her eyes, a look too serious for a 3-year-old's face. Life before her diagnosis wasn't awful, just full of tests, doctor visits and special diets. Walter and Kim decided to have another baby, and in 1972 Walter III was born, without any of Brooke's "digestive" troubles. By the time the family moved to Phoenix in June of 1974, Kim was seven months pregnant with their third child, Jordan.

Jordan was born September 4 of that year. Kim saw the signs immediately. Like Brooke before him, this new baby could not gain weight. He was always sick. By July of the next year, Jordan's condition had his mother extremely frightened.

"He got this horrific infection, and the antibiotics were not making any difference. I was getting worried, so I called the pediatrician and asked to schedule a conference meeting," she says.

The family's regular pediatrician was on vacation for the entire month, so Kim wound up sitting down with a new doctor, Steve Serlin, who had just finished his residency.

"He asked me a lot of questions, and he told me, 'Take Jordan home, and if he gets worse, I would want to hospitalize him,'" she says.

Jordan got worse.

That night, Kim recalls, Serlin took the Sterlings' medical files home with him to review. While looking over Brooke's file, he came across a note, scrawled years before by the pediatrician in Washington: "Thinking of testing for cystic fibrosis."

That pediatrician never did test for CF. He never even mentioned it to Walter and Kim.

Serlin immediately asked the hospital to administer what is called a sweat chloride test to little Jordan. Because cystic fibrosis affects the sweat glands, people with CF produce sweat that is extremely salty. During the test, doctors collect sweat and check to see how high the levels of sodium and chloride are. An abnormally high level of salt is indicative of cystic fibrosis.

Jordan's sweat tested high.

Serlin called the Sterlings and asked them to come in to his office to hear the results. The nervous couple went.

Had they heard of cystic fibrosis? Did they know what it was?

Yes, they'd heard of it. No, they didn't really know what it meant.

The doctor explained. Cystic fibrosis is an inherited genetic disorder that causes the body's sweat and mucus glands to malfunction, producing thick mucus that blocks organ passageways, causing lung infections and chronic lung disease. It also affects the body's digestion by preventing digestive enzymes from moving from the intestines to the pancreas.

The disease is deadly. There is no cure.

And their 18-month-old baby boy had it.

Kim says after the initial shock, her thoughts went to Brooke.

"Brooke was at my parents' house in Washington and she was having terrible stomach cramps, so they were going to take her to the hospital. I told Dr. Serlin, 'Call the hospital and tell them to administer a sweat chloride test. I will bet you anything that she tests positive, too,'" says Kim. "And she did."

At that time, the average life expectancy for a child with cystic fibrosis was 11. Brooke was 7.

"That absolutely devastated us," says Kim. "It was overwhelming. First, when you hear news like that, you go to the very end. You go to the worst part of it. It took a while to go, 'Wait a minute, this doesn't have to be catastrophic.'"

Kim and Walter made the decision to raise all three of their kids the same way, with a strong focus on quality of life.

"We understood that this was a terminal disease. We didn't know when [the children could die], but it was labeled terminal," Walter says. "I didn't focus on the death part. I had an awareness, but I believe we made the decision, 'Let's focus on what we have today.'"

Kim and Walter put up a strong front. They enrolled all three of their kids in after-school sports — tennis, golf, soccer, swimming, ballet for Brooke — anything they could think of to keep the kids active and healthy. Family pictures show happy kids: A young, lanky Jordan squints into the sun, his blond hair flopping in his face as he shoots hoops. Another photo, this one a staged studio shot, shows the three kids posed from oldest to youngest, identical blue eyes focused on the cameras. The boys look almost like twins, same haircuts, same expression, while Brooke again looks too serious for an 8-year-old, one year after her diagnosis.

There were issues to confront. Kim, for one, had to deal with anger and frustration toward the doctor in Washington who thought about testing Brooke for cystic fibrosis but did not. Had Brooke's CF been diagnosed earlier, the child would have had to endure far fewer invasive hospital tests and could have begun treatment for her digestive problems earlier.

"I just couldn't believe the pediatrician would have dictated that note in a file and never said to us, 'This is what we're thinking,'" she says. "I made an appointment to see him and told him, we had two more children. If you had diagnosed her, we would not have had these other two children. . . . That's not the issue — we love these boys — but I felt it was a failure on his part."

No matter how normal the Sterlings tried to make life for their kids, it wasn't. There were hospitalizations. There were routine lung function tests to take, strict diets to follow, enzymes and pills to swallow. And worst of all, there were late-night coughing attacks. Walter III shared a room with Jordan as a child and remembers that he would "cough all night long. He would cough up so much mucus and he'd be embarrassed at the amount so he'd force himself to swallow it."

Brooke says her biggest struggle as a child — one that has continued into her adult life — was trying to maintain a healthy body weight. She recalls pink packets of "vile"-tasting digestive enzymes poured onto food or into her drinks, and glasses of orange juice spiked with oil just to add calories.

Still, neither Brooke nor Jordan recalls feeling particularly different or "sick" as children.

"I don't think I consciously thought about CF at all," Brooke says. "Maybe subliminally. It was just kids growing up, very matter-of-fact. You have lunch, you have dinner, you wear pajamas to bed. Every few months you go into the CF clinic and you do this regimen and you do these therapies in between and you call it a day. I think about my health so much more now than I ever did as a kid. I think about it all day long on some level."

Brooke's experience with CF turned out totally different from her brother's. Brooke left home for boarding school in California her junior year of high school and then attended Pitzer College in southern California, where she studied social work and lived her life at "mach seven," as she puts it — traveling to 13 different countries, working full-time as a social worker, getting a master's degree from Columbia University in New York City, becoming executive director in charge of fund raising and staff at The Wellness Community, a nonprofit cancer support organization in the Valley. She says she paid very little attention to her cystic fibrosis in her younger years.

"Honestly, I would have to say that CF did not catch up with me until my very late 20s. That's when I started noticing my margin had significantly closed in."

Jordan's margin closed much sooner.

In high school at Brophy Prep, Jordan's body was beginning to turn against him. He did manage to move away from home for college, but by the time he graduated from Santa Clara University in 1997, it was pretty clear Jordan was nearing death. While in school, he joined a fraternity, and admits he wanted to do everything his friends did, regardless of CF.

"I didn't want to let the disease get the best of me," he says. "I still wanted to have fun, and when you're 18, 19 years old, you do whatever the hell you want. You don't always listen to what people have to say about what's best for you."

By graduation, his lung functioning was at about 30 percent — imagine running a marathon with a gigantic metal clamp around your lungs and you get some idea of what it was like for Jordan to breathe through the mucus filling his damaged lungs. And he was only getting sicker.

Jordan was living within 40 miles of Stanford University, home to one of the premier pulmonary clinics in the country, and his medical team thought it was time for Jordan to consider a lung transplant.

Ramona Doyle, a doctor and medical professor at Stanford who worked with Jordan, would not speak specifically about Jordan's case, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, but says most patients who elect to go the transplant route know that realistically they have a life expectancy of less than two or three years without it. And after the procedure, there is an enormous risk of infection and rejection of the organs.

"The context in which we're having this conversation is that they're dying," she says of the patient.

Knowing he had no other option, Jordan decided to go for it.

"This was a very difficult decision, being 22 years old, where most of my friends were thinking about careers and traveling and girls and partying," he says. "It definitely made me grow up real fast."

He spent the next three years of his life in limbo, getting sicker, waiting for the pager the transplant center gave him to go off, signaling it had found him a donor.

"I was on this waiting list, and I was thinking about when this pager was going to go off," he says. "That's pretty much all you think about. That and your next breath."

After two years, the pager did go off. Jordan, Kim and Walter flew to Stanford on Air Evac. Just as the anesthesiologist was about to put Jordan out, there came some bad news. The donor lungs were infected with valley fever. They were useless.

After the false alarm, it was another year before the pager went off again.

During that time, in November 2000, Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer. She remembers driving home the day of her seventh radiation treatment, thinking about dinner — she had a date with Jordan that night and was planning to make his favorite meal: pork chops, rice and peas. Her cell phone rang. It was Jordan. His pager had just gone off.

This time it was not a false alarm.

"There was no dinner that night," Kim says.

Five and a half hours after he entered surgery, Jordan's damaged lungs were gone, and inside his chest cavity were the 100 percent healthy lungs of a 25-year-old Chinese law student, dead from a head trauma hours earlier.

But Jordan's struggle didn't end on the operating table.

Doyle says that many transplant patients, including Jordan, who now says he feels like he no longer has CF, might view the procedure as a cure — but it is still a lifetime medical commitment.

"They have to view this not as a cure, but as a treatment that is going to be life-changing," she says. "They can't just come in and get new lungs and that's it. They have to have a lifetime adherence to a complicated medical regimen. After the transplant, being a transplanted patient is a full-time job."

Today, Jordan says his life just follows a routine. His lung functioning stays around 100 percent, and since he's passed the five-year mark, his chances for rejection are low — as long as he sticks to his daily regimen of pills.

According to Doyle, because Jordan has passed the five-and-a-half-year mark, his chances for survival are extremely good, and it's possible he could live to normal life expectancy.

Jordan's becoming a successful home mortgage broker. He's got the GQ outfits, the BlackBerry, a girlfriend — he's living the life he wanted in college.

"I got my ass kicked for nine to 12 months. It definitely wasn't easy, but it sure is easy now, I'll tell you that," he says. "My life is simple now."

By the time Jordan was recovering successfully from his transplant, the simple act of breathing had become more complicated for Brooke. With mucus clogging her lungs, the act of getting enough oxygen into her body was a painful task rather than a no-brainer. On bad days, she consciously had to think about each coming breath, counting and planning each step.

When she inhales on a bad day, the sensation is one of a gigantic clamp around her torso. Unable to expand or contract her lungs freely, she has to pause often, her body working overtime to get enough oxygen into her lungs through the mucus inside them.

Most disturbing for Brooke, for whom digestion was always the biggest challenge, she was no longer able to hold weight. In fact, she was losing it rapidly, dropping 10 pounds from her already slight frame in about a month. Without digestive enzymes to help her break down and process food, Brooke says her body would reject food in a "sort of slow and gruesome experience, mimicking food poisoning but without the vomiting."

As her body was breaking down, Brooke says she couldn't shake the feeling that the way she was approaching her disease was wrong, that she didn't want to spend her life pumped full of antibiotics.

"If there was any way to keep my system strong enough to avoid that, I would rather put in an enormous amount of hours than go on what is essentially permanent antibiotic therapy. I felt unsure of my body's ability to tolerate those antibiotics over time," she says.

At this point in her life, Brooke was practicing yoga religiously, having started when she was 18 and becoming progressively more interested in the elements behind the exercise and Eastern philosophy and thought.

She went from feeling uncertain about antibiotic therapy to dead set against it about 10 years ago while battling a raging lung infection. She was following a home IV antibiotic regimen, having refused hospitalization, and began to notice it was hard to keep her balance, odd for a woman who had practiced yoga for the past decade. The next time a home nurse came to check the IV, Brooke mentioned the situation and was told inner ear problems were a normal side effect of the drug and there was a slight possibility she could lose her hearing.

"I stopped the regimen that night," she says. "It was one of those moments of confirmation where everything that you think or have thought for a really long time all of a sudden clicks in your mind. I had enough data to know that these treatments are not the route for me, so I started to shift naturopathically."

As she searched for a new survival strategy, Brooke turned more seriously to yoga, as a way to restructure her life and manage her disease.

When she took her first yoga class during her freshman year of college, Brooke was young and relatively healthy. A vivacious blonde, she was always looking for something new to try. The classroom was nothing special — a spare room in the gym on the campus of Pitzer's sister school Pomona. But Brooke will never forget it. She likens that first class to the euphoria of falling in love.

"You know when people look at each other and know that they're each other's partner or soul mate on site? This was the experience I had in that first class," she says. "I knew I was sitting on the mother lode. I don't remember entirely driving home."

Brooke began practicing on a regular basis, focusing on the Kundalini and Ashtanga styles of yoga. When she was 21, she took her first Bikram, or hot, yoga class.

"It was the hardest yoga class I'd ever taken, but the results in terms of feeling better are so immediate that you could not digest a pill and feel the effects more quickly," she says. "Yoga is no joke. The Bikram was strong for me."

The more she learned about Bikram yoga, the more intense her passion for the discipline became. After practicing for eight years, she attended training to become a certified Bikram teacher. Three years ago she opened her own studio, Bikram of Phoenix, in a strip mall next to a hair salon and an antiques store.

When she's inside the studio, Brooke does seem to breathe easier. She's created a purposeful sense of calm in the space. Incense or essential oils blaze, and the dim lights and muted brown walls command visitors to exhale, take it easy. On a table in front of the requisite lobby futon is an array of books: Meditation for Wimps, Return of the Rishi, Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About.

The place isn't always so serene. On a busy Saturday morning, the early class hasn't ended and already there's a large group gathering for the second. About 40 pairs of shoes are piled up by the front door.

Brooke guides the class through a sweltering 90-minute Bikram class in a strong voice, moving around often, readjusting clumsy poses, cracking jokes and narrating a story on the beauty of what yoga can do for a person. She is more in her element here teaching than she is anyplace else, she says.

After class she sits behind the front desk chatting happily with her clients. She manages to greet every single person in the packed studio by their name and is genuinely interested in how they respond to the question, "How ya doing?"

This is a community Brooke wants to turn into a much larger practice. Right now she offers 34 classes a week in five different yoga styles. Because just being in the heated studio can cause her to lose weight, Brooke is only able to teach five to six classes a week, depending on how she feels. The studio is also home to one naturopath and two massage therapists. Her main focus at the moment is to find a space that will let her project grow to a 40,000-square-foot practice with 10 naturopathic doctors, 15 massage therapists, and yoga that runs all day.

Though yoga and cystic fibrosis consume much of her thought, Brooke does have a life outside her studio. Though she's not in a relationship right now, Brooke does date and would like to have children of her own someday. She doesn't mention if CF affects her dating decisions or future children, though she does say she thinks yoga will help her carry a child someday.

"I better get on the ball, because I'll be 40," she says. "One thing that makes me think I would be able to carry a child, just because of my age, is because of yoga my other body systems [not affected by CF] are in really good order."

The effort Brooke expends just to keep herself alive is considerable. She lives alone to allow herself the quiet she needs to heal, and to provide a place to hibernate when she's feeling especially bad. She practices yoga daily — though she can't do Bikram every day because she would lose too much weight. Although she's absolutely tiny, she has to eat constantly in an attempt to stuff her body with enough nutrients to survive. Because her digestive system lacks normal enzymes, Brooke relies on a blend of natural (nutraceutical rather than pharmaceutical) digestive enzymes and stuffs her body with as much food as she can handle. She hates it, but she's working extremely hard to reach her goal weight of 125 pounds (she currently tips the scale at about 110).

"I'm irritated by the fact that I have to sit down and just eat all the goddamn time," she says. "I've resisted it, but my resistance is breaking down as my desire to gain weight increases."

In a society that values the waif, it seems intuitive that people might be jealous of a woman who can drop five to 10 pounds in a day simply by sitting in a hot room.

"People will say, 'I wish I had that problem.' It happens all the time," she says. "I try to answer gently, because if they knew, they would never say that."

Every morning when she wakes up, Brooke swallows a handful of supplements — usually about seven pills taken in one enormous gulp. She makes herself a shake to "douse" her body with nutrients. The ingredients sound less than appetizing: perfect food super green formula, ginseng and royal jelly, brewer's yeast buds, bee pollen, glutamine powder, colostrum. This is definitely something she has to talk herself into doing, a fact made clear by a printout attached to the bulletin board in her kitchen: "It is totally irrelevant if you feel up to it. You will make this shake every day for 40 days."

In addition to the nutrient-rich shake, she has a large breakfast: two eggs, mangoes, pita and hummus, tomatoes, and one cup of extremely strong coffee.

Two hours later, she eats a snack.

Two hours after that, she has lunch, another nutrient-rich feast.

Two hours later, another snack.

Two hours later, dinner.

"The amount of time I spend eating," she says, "is just absurd."

On a Saturday morning, after teaching her 90-minute Bikram class, Brooke is clearly wiped out. She's sitting in the office of her naturopath Mark Green, who practices out of an area of Brooke's studio.

Green's office looks like any doctor's — examining table, bottles of medicine, stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff. The only visible sign that this might be a different kind of practice is the fact that both doctor and patient are not wearing shoes — everyone removes their shoes upon entering the studio.

Brooke has been seeing Green for a year. She feels like she has a "clean slate" with natural medicine.

"It's a massive tweaking process with fitting the pieces together. I have to say it was highly exhausting. You just want the fucking answer," she says. "But I've become patient with that process because the quieter I get, the more I'm able to hear subtle messages my system is sending, and I'm figuring out how to address them in a more permanent way."

Today's goal is acupuncture to address her fatigue. As Green asks a few questions to determine exactly what is bothering her, Brooke begins to cough. The sound starts deep in her chest, from far inside her lungs. It sounds watery, full of mucus, loud. Nothing like the throaty cough that comes with a common cold. It hurts. Her face turns bright red, and she looks tired and very sad. But moments after the attack, she balls up the Kleenex she was coughing into and waves it around like a little ghost, laughing.

Green checks her lungs. He's worried that there is more mucus in them than there should be, but doesn't think it's an infection. He gives her two small bottles of liquid — one contains N-Acetyl Cysteine to clean out her lungs, and the other contains a liver antioxidant. He instructs her to put 1cc of each into her nebulizer — a machine used to deliver bronchial medicine — along with a cc of a liquid mix of homeopathic remedies that will help her mucus membranes.

He checks her vitals. When he goes to check her mouth, she jokes around, warning him, "Stand back, because after I cough, I fear this mouth." Green tells her that the inflamed dots on her tongue indicate heat in her lungs, and when he checks her pulse, her kidneys feel weak.

The doctor and patient are ready to start the day's acupuncture treatment.

She lies down on the table and he turns down the lights. He sticks the first needle into her forehead. The next goes into her right wrist, then the left. He works his way down. Left ankle, right ankle, Achilles tendon, bottom of the foot.

"These needles are sterile and sharpened by lasers," he says.

Brooke cuts in with another joke: "Mark goes home and files them."

There is constant communication between the two as he inserts needles into what he calls her energy meridians. When he is done, he leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him, giving his patient time to focus on why she is there: to feel better.

And most days she does feel better, though she admits she is in pain, mostly in her muscles, and is tired a lot of the time. It's a pain most people who know her never get to see. Michelle Clancey, a close friend of Brooke's and a massage therapist who operates out of the studio, says she never realized how sick Brooke really is until they lived together.

"When I first moved in, she would have late-night coughing attacks. Violent attacks where she'd be coughing for like 20 minutes straight. It was almost like a baby crying," she says.

But the fact that Brooke is sick is something no one talks about for long. Outside of a very tight inner circle, Brooke does not share her day-to-day struggle. Even conversations about what she wants to happen if she dies are brief and matter-of-fact, says Clancey.

"We've maybe had one or two talks like that," she says. "When we do talk about it, we don't talk about it for very long. It's a three-minute conversation. It sounds strange, but they're very fact-based."

Brooke is not all philosophy and serious thought all the time. Clancey remembers walking into the studio one day to find Brooke sitting at the front desk next to a frizzy, rainbow-colored clown wig.

"I was taking myself too seriously today, so I've been wearing this wig today everywhere," Brooke told her. "You can't be serious anymore when you have a clown wig on."

Clancey smiles when she remembers how hard they laughed at that.

"The thought of her standing in line at the bank with a clown wig on — I find so much humor in that," she says. "She'd rather laugh than loom in the darkness."

Jokes aside, everyone around Brooke knows she's dead serious.

"The thing that is useful to me about this disease is that I am lucid on my life purpose," she says. "I don't spend time wondering what that's about. If I can leverage this disease to expand how many people can use yoga as a tool, that's what I'm going to do. This is not just about health. This is about your life and what it could look like if you went nuts with your own personal courage."

In spite of her pain, Brooke believes strongly that her natural approach to healing is working. She concedes that traditional treatment is not completely out of the question for her — as an "emergency room" only. She refuses to live her life on traditional CF treatments.

This is a scary decision for the people who love her. Though every member of her family says they accept her choice, it's clear they still worry about her. Because Jordan's transplant was so successful, there has been a push to get Brooke to consider one as well.

"Knowing how she feels and what she goes through every day, and seeing how my life is, I just wish she would go up there [to Stanford] and see what they have to say," says Jordan. "She might not like what she hears, but at least she'll have the information."

Her family worries that she might be pushing herself into a margin where she couldn't seek Western medical help even if she wanted to.

They might be right. According to Michelle Martinez, a nurse at the Cystic Fibrosis Center at Phoenix Children's Hospital who has not worked with the Sterlings and did not comment directly on their case, there is essentially a point of no return when it comes to lung functioning in CF patients.

"You can go for a long time and feel really healthy, but there can still be changes going on inside your lungs," she says. "Basically, what could be happening is they're decreasing their lung function and the lungs are becoming more damaged. Even though they don't feel it, it's happening on the most basic cellular level."

Walter III puts it more bluntly.

"My sister has chosen yoga," he says. "If she decided to go the other way now, I don't know if she could. It freaks me out."

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin