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Health issues fail to stop Force star
May 5, 2014
Nathan Charles touches down for the Western Force, Highlanders v Western Force, Super Rugby, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, March 15, 2014
Nathan Charles is the only professional athlete with cystic fibrosis to play contact sport © Getty Images
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Western Force hooker Nathan Charles is a hero to the thousands of cystic fibrosis sufferers in Australia. But for Charles, the real heroes are the hospitalised kids who face a battle each and every day just to keep breathing.

Charles is the only professional athlete with cystic fibrosis playing a contact sport. He was diagnosed with the potentially life-threatening condition when he was just three months old. To get on top of his CF, Charles takes up to 30 tablets every day. But for Charles, the best form of medication is exercise.

And when young CF sufferers see Charles bashing his 104kg frame around the rugby field, they can't help but be inspired. That inspiration is a two-way street.

"Some kids don't leave hospital," Charles says. "They're in there day to day fighting hard just to breathe and be able to walk. I find those kids are the most inspiring to me. They're fighting a really tough fight. A lot of people are more affected than I am.

"I don't live day to day thinking I'm this big role model. I just do things to the best of my ability. "If that inspires people, I'm ecstatic about that. But that's not what's driving me to perform to the best of my ability."

CF has no known cure and brings with it an average life expectancy of just 37 years. Thirty years ago, the average life expectancy of the genetic disease was just 17. The condition affects a number of organs in the body, especially the lungs and pancreas, by clogging them with thick, sticky mucus. Repeated infections and blockages can cause irreversible lung damage and death.

Last month, Charles collapsed on the sidelines after working himself to a standstill in the Force's win over the Waratahs.

"I had been a bit unwell during the week, and it was the most brutal game I've been a part of in my career," Charles says. "It all came to head. It was a case of dehydration and exhaustion. I went to hospital that night and got a few tests and found out the reasons behind that. We've addressed that now with the medical team and hopefully that won't happen again."

The very next week, Charles was back in the thick of the action against the Rebels as if nothing had happened. Charles views CF as a challenge, rather than a barrier. He's urging sufferers to take control of their CF, rather than letting the CF take control of them.

Charles has been a national ambassador for Cystic Fibrosis Australia since 2010. One charity close to his heart is the 65 Roses Challenge, which uses the month of May to help raise funds and awareness for cystic fibrosis sufferers in Australia. The charity encourages people to organise a challenge of their choice themed around the number 65, with registrations open on cysticfibrosis.org.au.

Charles also promotes the fight against CF through his twitter (@NathanCharles2) and instagram (nathancharles2) accounts, along with his website nathancharles.com.au. But for the moment, Charles is concentrating on another big battle - the Force's two-game tour of South Africa.

The Force sit in fifth spot on the table following a dream start to the season, and the Perth-based franchise can edge closer to securing a maiden finals berth with wins over the struggling Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) and Stormers (Cape Town). Charles has played 53 games since arriving at the Force on a short-term deal in 2010, and he's keen to stay on at the franchise beyond this season.

Although the 25-year-old misses his family in Sydney, his move to Perth was made easier by the Dormers, who as part of the Force Family initiative adopted Charles into their home. Charles is now enjoying his rugby more than ever.

Although CF has been a big part of his journey, it's not what defines him. He hopes other sufferers will view life in much the same way.

© AAP
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