Leann Rittenbaum has never let cystic fibrosis turn her life into a series of “I can’ts.”
And now she’s even said “I do.”
Rittenbaum, 30, married Douglas Ott on March 19th at the Marriott on Windward Parkway in Alpharetta. It was the ultimate happy ending for the Atlanta resident who was diagnosed at the age of three with the life-threatening genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system.
And as usual, the person right by her side throughout — or in this case, wearing a gorgeous, one-shoulder bridesmaid dress — was her lifelong friend, Emily Choate Bridges.
“It was in a great way, the most emotionally charged wedding,” Bridges, also 30, said in an interview Tuesday. “You know, you go to weddings all the time, and of course you’re happy for the people involved. But this was so totally up and above and beyond all that.”
Last year, the AJC introduced readers to the inspiring and funny saga of Leann and Emily — how they met and immediately bonded as 2-year-olds in a Chamblee preschool, and stuck together through all the usual ups-and-downs of kids and teenagers, right up to today. And the unusual one, precipitated by Rittenbaum’s diagnosis with CF.
Here’s part of that story:
A cystic fibrosis diagnosis can be scary and lonely. Only about 70,000 people worldwide have the disease, for which the life expectancy once was so short, children diagnosed in the 1950s “were not expected to live long enough to attend elementary school,” according to the national foundation.
Even now that enormous progress is being made (“Many people … can now expect to live into their 30s, 40s and beyond,” according to the foundation), having CF typically involves a rigorous daily regimen of airway clearance, inhaled medicines, enzyme supplement pills and more.
Yet those two little girls from the lunchroom always just rolled with it. They had play dates at the Choate home, where supplies of Leann’s medicine were kept on hand. And sleepovers in Leann’s hospital room during her medical “tuneups” over Christmas school breaks. As middle schoolers, they even shared a bunk bed at a summer camp in North Carolina that turned out to be a great experience. For one of them.
“Looking back, I had a severe panic attack,” said Bridges, who jokes that the sound of crickets still makes her queasy. “If Leann hadn’t been there with me, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
That mutually supportive relationship has always extended to the two girls’ families. Over the years, Choate Construction, the Atlanta-based commercial and general contracting giant founded by Millard Choate, Bridges’s father, has raised $2.5 million for cystic fibrosis. On April 30, the company, where Bridges is director of marketing, will once again throw “Cars & ‘Q for the Cause,” the popular barbecue-meets-classic car show that last year raised $178,600 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Both sets of parents were at the wedding, with Rittenbaum’s standing by the happy couple’s side throughout the entire ceremony. The path to “I do” never runs entirely smoothly; for Rittenbaum and Ott, a financial adviser, it had taken them about a month earlier to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“We proactively went to UPMC for a lung transplant evaluation where I was deemed a little too healthy for a transplant, which is obviously good news,” the bride related. “It helped put things in perspective and now we know what to expect if or when transplant time comes.”
For all their closeness, Bridges didn’t quite have the front-row seat during Rittenbaum’s vows. That honor went to her own husband, Stephen Bridges, whom Rittenbaum and Ott asked to be their officiant.
“I asked Stephen afterwards, ‘How was it watching that?’” Emily Bridges said of her husband, whose day job is in industrial and commercial real estate. “And he said, ‘You never saw so much happiness beaming from so many faces.’”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.