Strong medicine: Friends take on cystic fibrosis together

They met in a Chamblee preschool as 2-year-olds and instantly bonded in “the picking-our-noses and crayon departments,” one says. They’ve had each other’s backs for longer even than they’ve known their own sisters, the other points out.

So when Leann Rittenbaum coughed one day more than two decades ago in the lunchroom at Montgomery Elementary School, it was only natural that her best friend would leap to her defense.

“This kid made some cooties comment and Emily jumped up and said, ‘It’s not contagious!’” Rittenbaum, 29, laughed recently, sitting beside Emily Choate Bridges at a Starbucks in Buckhead.

“That was my first realization that Leann shouldn’t have to deal with this (crap),” said Bridges, also 29. “It’s as simple as that.”

Actually, it’s kind of remarkable. The “(crap)” Bridges refers to is cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease primarily affecting the lungs and digestive system. Rittenbaum was diagnosed with it at age 3. What might have driven a wedge between those two little girls instead helped them forge a uniquely close, mutually supportive bond that endures to this day. And it’s the driving force behind the sixth annual “Cars & ‘Q for the Cause,” a benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that pulls up to the curb here on May 30.

Sponsored by Choate Construction, the Atlanta-based commercial and general contracting giant where Clemson grad Bridges is director of marketing, “Cars & ‘Q” is an ideal Southern marriage of ribs and drool-inducing classic rides (last year, a Gatsby-esque Pierce-Arrow showed up). Before now, the event was always held on a weekday in the fall. The move to May puts it during Cystic Fibrosis Month and supplies even more horsepower to Choate Construction’s already impressive CF fundraising engine.

Over the years, the company that Millard Choate, Emily’s dad, started in the family basement in 1989 has raised over $2 million through unique events like “Cars & ‘Q,” an extreme hike organized out of its Charlotte, N.C., office and an every-other-year clay shoot in Savannah. It’s typical of a family that’s been a rock of support ever since that initial diagnosis, says Scot Rittenbaum, Leann’s father. He remembers his wife, Karen, and Sue Choate organizing things like fundraising swimathons when their daughters were young. Years later, Emily was not long out of college when she set up a meeting over coffee with him.

“She said, ‘What can I do to help?’” said Rittenbaum, now executive director of the CF Foundation’s Georgia chapter. “I cannot remember a time when the Choates were not right there with us in this.”

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.”

Meanwhile, Rittenbaum credits camp with emboldening her to go out of state for college. She got her art history degree from Boston University and had started graduate school up there when she suffered some medical setbacks; reluctantly, she decided to leave the “very urban city” she loved living in and come home to focus on getting well.

When she did, her friend was right here waiting for her. Now they’re back living less than 10 minutes apart, in Brookhaven. Rittenbaum works for an e-commerce consulting company and is engaged to be married next March. Bridges, who got married two years ago, is in the wedding.

It was only natural that things turned out this way.

Though one of the lunchroom buddies left nothing to chance.

“You took me on a tour of Atlanta so I’d be OK with living here again!” Rittenbaum laughingly reminded her friend. She repeated, slowly, as if to absorb the magnitude. “She took me to all of her favorite places. … And now I’m getting married here.”

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