“Five Feet Apart,” the tear-jerker love story about two teens with cystic fibrosis, is doing well in theaters, earning more than $28 million at the box office.

But some people with cystic fibrosis were hesitant to see the film when it was released two weeks ago, waiting for the theaters to clear out a bit. CF patients are warned to stay at least 6 feet apart, lest they spread cross-infections. Going to a movie theater meant the possibility of unknowingly being within that distance of other people with CF.

Trisha Harmon of Akron, who has CF, had a sound strategy. She went to see the film with some 30 friends and family members.

“I had all those people I knew around me, so I just sat in the middle of the group,” she said.

Darlene Wagner of Louisville, and her daughter MaKarleigh Kotema, who has CF, were cautious but also determined to see the movie.

“We thought we should wait to see it, but we wanted to have her experience it in the theater,” said Wagner. “We saw at the [Regal] theater in Massillon that has reclining seats, so you’re generally not as close to other people. We went with my husband and MaKarleigh's stepsister and we sat where there was no one else in our vicinity, just in case.”

The film stars Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse as Stella and Will, two teenagers with CF who meet in a hospital and fall in love. They adhere to the 6-feet rule up until the point when Stella decides to dare to get a foot closer (thus the title).

Both teens are on oxygen, wear masks when they are outside their rooms, and go through a series of treatments. They try to meet up in different parts of the hospital and their bond grows deeper, beyond just sharing the same disease.

“Seeing the movie was kind of surreal, because I could really relate to it," said Harmon, 33. “For my family, it put things into perspective on the daily things I have to deal with.”

That daily routine has improved in the past year. "I started on a new medication a year ago," she said. "Since then I have had only two hospitalizations, and that's down from six to eight times a year. I definitely have a much better social life now."

She also recently took up a new hobby: sky diving.

 

Fact vs. fiction

A group of 10 health care professionals from the CF Center at Akron Children’s Hospital went to see "Five Feet Apart" together. Asked about the film’s accuracy, several of them responded via email.

Unlike in the film, “patients wear masks any time they are not in their rooms, and they don’t congregate in lobbies or exercise together,” said Susan Kelly, coordinator of the Pulmonary Function Lab at ACH. “Patients are confined to their rooms except for going to PFT Lab or [for] physical therapy."

The types of masks worn by some of the film's characters, called Vogmasks, are not approved by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Kelly added.

“The infection control that was utilized during the hospital stay was not accurate,” said Michelle Powers, clinical research coordinator at ACH. “Unfortunately, two people with CF cannot go to get ice cream together in the cafeteria even if they stay 6 feet apart.”

Although the professionals were skeptical of the ways some of the medical aspects were portrayed, they gave a thumbs up to the movie in general.

“I think it accurately portrays the emotional aspect,” said Dr. Greg Omlor, a pediatric pulmonologist and director of the Lewis H. Walker CF Center at Children’s Hospital.

“All staff are aware of the emotional aspect of the disease and work through that with patients. More specifically, we have a social worker and behavioral medicine specialist to help with the emotional aspect of living with CF.”

“Five Feet Apart” is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, language and suggestive material.” Would the professionals recommend it for younger teens with CF?

“As a father, I would say the emotional and sexual aspects of it make it appropriate for age 16 years and up. If I think more realistically about what younger teenagers are exposed to, I would say age 13 years and up,” said Omlor.

“If I were a parent of a teen with CF I would watch it first so I was ready to answer questions about some of the difficult scenes, especially the ending,” said Christine Singh, an adult CF nurse practitioner at ACH.

“I found it a sweet, touching teen love story. I love that it is helping create awareness of CF,” she said.

“Five Feet Apart” clearly hit home for CF patients and their families.

“In one scene, Stella is wearing her [therapy] vest and leaning over the bed doing that vibration noise,” said Wagner via phone. “When that came on, all of us were like, 'Oh my god, MaKarleigh, she’s got a vest like yours!'

“There are always some liberties taken with every movie. Nurses are not going to talk to one patient about another patient’s diagnosis and that sort of thing," she said. "But for the most part, I thought it was very well done."

For MaKarleigh, who turns 14 on Saturday, the film was a chance to see her heartthrob, Cole Sprouse, in a romantic story.

“It made me feel single,” she said. “But I thought it was good. I thought it was inspiring.”

Asked where it ranks among her all-time favorite movies, MaKarleigh said she would have to place it at No. 2.

“It was good, but ‘Titanic’ still beats them all,” she said. “ ‘Titanic’ is awesome.”

 

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.