Kathy Waldo was skating up the ice during a recent game in Boston's Matthews Arena, playing in the gnatlike way that earned her a scholarship at Northeastern, when an opposing player took exception to some Waldo stick checks. "I'm gonna kill you!" yelled Providence's Valerie Bono, a 5'10" enforcer. Waldo, 5'2" and maybe 115 pounds, laughed.
"Look at you," she said. "You're huge. You better be able to kill me." Waldo, who seconds earlier had taken a firm (and blatantly illegal) elbow to the noggin from Bono, laughed again as her adversary glided away toward the penalty box.
Waldo, a 22-year-old senior forward for the Huskies, was two months old when her parents, Maureen and Joe, were told that she had cystic fibrosis, an inherited genetic defect that results in chronic lung problems and digestive disorders. "The doctors said she'd spend her life in hospitals," says Maureen, who resides with her husband in Cross Plains, Wis. "Back then, cystic fibrosis was in the dark ages. They told us our daughter would live until she was 18, maybe 20, and that would be it."
Maureen takes a breath. She has seen Kathy go through coughing spells, frightening infections and days when she was just plain weary. It has been a battle. "We just decided to take our own approach," says Maureen. "She was not going to grow up as a patient. She deserved more."
Cystic fibrosis produces a sticky, thick mucus that damages the tissue of the lungs, making breathing difficult. When one sits in a stuffy hospital room, theorized Kathy's parents, breathing does not get any easier. When one is outside, running and jumping and sliding and taking in deep gulps of fresh air, breathing is natural. So whenever young Kathy started coughing a lot, Joe hauled her out to the sidewalk and made her sprint a hard lap around the block. "The neighbors must've thought Dad was some kind of tyrant," Kathy says. The Waldos also encouraged their daughter to follow David, her older brother by a year, into the yard to play football or baseball or basketball. Most important, she followed David, who is not afflicted by cystic fibrosis, into ice hockey.
Kathy was three years old when she first tried skating. At age three she joined a local boys' Midget team for four-to seven-year-olds. She was the first female to play on the boys' hockey team at Middleton High. The only female team captain, too. "Nothing's better for me than hockey," says Waldo, the possessor of wide brown eyes and a comforting, toothy smile. "The skating makes you work really hard, and then you take in the cold air from the ice. It opens your lungs up and keeps things moving in your body. For people suffering from CF, hockey's perfect."
It is easy to say that now, as Waldo finishes up a spectacular four-year collegiate run. But who would've envisioned that? This is not the story of a sickly girl struggling to earn a spot on the bench. Waldo is a star for powerhouse Northeastern (22-6-3 and ranked No. 4 nationally at week's end). She is a natural point producer (106 in 121 career games, including 12 goals and 15 assists this season through Sunday).
She's rugged, too. "Oh, is she tough," says Jaime Totten, Northeastern's captain. "If someone's messing with her on the ice, Kathy won't think twice about standing right up to her."
Waldo makes cystic fibrosis sound like a splinter in the butt, only less painful. Truth be told, the path has not been smooth. Every time she gets a cold or is even near someone with a cold, there is cause for concern. Each day she takes a buffet of medications, including an array of enzymes at each meal and DNase, a liquid that breaks down the mucus that accumulates in her lungs. Infection comes easily to the CF sufferer. In the summer before her sophomore year, Waldo underwent surgery to repair lingering damage to her right shoulder. The procedure went well, but what followed was torture. As a result of the operation, an infection spread through Waldo's lungs. She was on and off IVs, in and out of the hospital, for five weeks.
It was a frightening period. Through her first 18 years Waldo had been hospitalized only twice. "It reminded me of what can happen," she says. "It was horrible." Gutsy as ever, Waldo played 27 games that season. "She never complained," says Totten. "We've seen what she has gone through without ever feeling sorry for herself. That sends a message: Be tough."