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.