Struggling to breathe, with her chest feeling like the life is being squeezed out of it, Ella Hamza seems an unlikely person to be found pumping weights at the gym or cutting through the water at a swimming pool.
But the 20-year-old university student refuses to let cystic fibrosis (CF) rule her life.
It is the way it has always been for Ella, who was born with the degenerative lung condition.
The University of Portsmouth criminology student has to take up to 60 tablets a day to control her CF, but also throws herself into intense strength and conditioning workouts at Southern Legion, in Hilsea, and swims with Portsmouth Northsea.
Together they have helped increase her lung capacity dramatically, enabling her to breathe a little easier. And she wants to encourage others with the condition to exercise for health.
Ella, from Cosham, says: ‘As a kid, most of the time I was quite healthy.
‘But there were days when I was bedbound, which was very upsetting.
‘But it was something I had to live with so I accepted it.
‘That’s because of my family’s attitude. My mum, Vanessa (Dickson), is very strong for me. She always made me take my medication and got me through every day.
‘She was determined that CF would not rule my life and was determined to find something to help me.’
At just hours old, Ella had a major operation to remove a large part of her intestine due to a blockage.
It was then doctors realised she had CF, which affects the lungs, digestive system, pancreas and liver.
She produces too much mucus which her body cannot shift naturally. That’s why she takes a daily cocktail of drugs and why physiotherapy, in the form of exercise, is vital.
‘Although I have my ups and downs it will get progressively worse because my lungs will just deteriorate and eventually pack up’ says Ella.
‘Swimming helps me because it clears the mucus out from my lungs. I swim competitively for Portsmouth Northsea.
‘Although I compete I’m not what you call a proper athlete. I’m not up there with the big shots, I compete because it’s a bit of extra fun for me’.
Earlier this year Ella had been fighting a serious chest infection which meant she was left struggling to swim.
But since signing up to Southern Legion with coach Ray Pharoah, she has beaten the infection and is swimming again.
She says: ‘I joined Southern Legion’s transformation course 12 weeks ago.
‘It’s really made a big difference although there was a lot of moaning from me as I did it!
‘All the cardio has really helped me with my swimming. I’m a lot stronger now.
‘Before I started the course my lung capacity was 89 per cent because I’d been fighting a long term chest infection.
‘Once I started strength and conditioning at Southern Legion I upped my swimming as well because I was able to put more effort in.
‘All the hard work paid off because my lung capacity has gone up to 96 per cent’.
Ray Pharoah is the owner of Southern Legion strength and conditioning gym, in Hilsea, and has been working closely with Ella.
He says: ‘I’m absolutely thrilled with Ella’s results.
‘She’s been a pleasure to coach over the 12 weeks and I’m really happy that she’s staying on to train with us as a member of Southern Legion gym.
‘Ella puts 100 per cent effort into every training session, so I’m not surprised that her stats have improved, but I am amazed by just how much.
‘I’ve always known anecdotally that what we do on the Transformation Programme makes a significant difference to people’s health.
‘A lot of people have told me that their blood pressure has dropped or that their long-term back or knee pain has disappeared.
‘But to see these results in black and white from Ella’s specialists is just incredible.
‘Hearing news like this makes my job so worthwhile’.
Despite the prognosis for people with CF, Ella says it is vital to keep fit.
She says: ‘I would say to others with CF, “exercise, you can do it. Even if it’s just jogging or more walking than normal .
“Throw yourselves into it. It makes it easier to get on top of it and get on with life”.’
To find out more about Southern Legion, go to southernlegion.co.uk.
Living with cystic fibrosis
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs, but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine.
Long-term issues include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus as a result of frequent lung infections.
Ella explains: ‘Most of the time I’m not able to take really deep breaths. It sounds as if I’m panting all the time but I’m taking short breaths.
‘One day I feel like I can breathe normally then a couple of hours later it feels as if my chest is being squeezed and I’m breathing through a tiny straw.
‘I’m on a truck-load of medication. I take at least 20 tablets in the morning and up to 60 in a day.
‘Most of the time I take it in my stride, other days I want to scream and shout because it really sucks having to take so many tablets’.
People with CF suffer with liver problems which means their bodies cannot process alcohol. And fat is also a problem because their guts cannot process it which means no greasy takeaway foods. That has had an impact on her social life.
In a bid to make things easier for others in her situation, Ella has fundraised for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust which gave her a wealth of support. To find out more, go to cysticfibrosis.org.uk.