‘Five Feet Apart’: What Condition Do Stella and Will Have, and How Does It Work in Real Life?

The 2019 film Five Feet Apart portrays two teenagers with cystic fibrosis who fall in love during a hospital stay while they battle their health conditions. Despite Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) having to stay at least 6 feet apart from each other at all times due to their condition, the two explore what it means to love another person, even if distance and circumstances out of their control keep them physically separated. But what condition do Stella and Will have, exactly? Keep reading to learn more.

What condition do Stella and Will have in ‘Five Feet Apart’?

Cole Sprouse as Will and Haley Lu Richardson as Stella in 'Five Feet Apart.'
Cole Sprouse as Will and Haley Lu Richardson as Stella in ‘Five Feet Apart.’ | CBS Films

Cystic fibrosis, the disease that Stella and Will suffer from in Five Feet Apart, is a genetic condition that causes a buildup of thick mucus in the lungs. The condition also makes it difficult for patients to breathe and leads to coughing and susceptibility to bacterial infections that can further diminish lung function. Because CF also impacts the pancreas, it can be incredibly difficult for patients to stay at a healthy weight. 

CF makes its patients highly susceptible to infections caused by various types of bacteria entering a person’s body through the air or by touching common surfaces. The bacteria strain that Will’s character has contracted in the film, B. cepacia, is an extremely resilient type of bacteria that is resistant to treatment and highly contagious to other patients with cystic fibrosis. 

This is why Stella’s doctor strongly advises that she stay away from Will, because catching this strain of bacteria would likely mean facing severe consequences for her — and could even complicate her much-needed viability for a life-saving lung transplant.

Many of the depictions of CF are true to real life

While some of the portrayals of cystic fibrosis in Five Feet Apart are romanticized for the film, many aspects of the condition can be fairly accurate representations. It’s important to note that CF is a highly complex disease with nearly 2,000 different types of mutations, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. This means that each individual case will vary from another patient’s experience, so the symptoms showcased by Will, Stella, and her best friend Poe in the film only depict the reality of a portion of CF cases.

So what did the film get right? 

The 6-foot rule that Will, Stella, and Poe are all expected to follow is a real method that healthcare workers will often enforce in hospital settings to help keep CF patients safe from cross-infections. Droplets from coughs or sneezes can travel up to 6 feet, hence the reasoning for the 6-foot rule. Face masks and gloves are also useful preventative measures to keep the patients from picking up bacteria on commonly touched surfaces or breathing in infected droplets from others. 

Many of the treatments seen in the film, such as Stella’s meticulously-organized medicine cart, nebulizers, and even the AffloVest are all real things that can be part of a CF patient’s treatment regimen. Another true-to-life depiction from the film is the port, which is an implant that allows doctors access to a patient’s blood flow for those who need frequent IV treatments and antibiotics.

How did Sprouse and Richardson prepare for their roles as teens with CF?

Because cystic fibrosis is such a complex disease that may be less widely recognized by the public, actors Sprouse and Richardson had some research and preparation to do before stepping into their roles as Will and Stella. 

In an interview with People, Sprouse revealed that he and Richardson along with director Justin Baldoni, created a “nutritional regimen dedicated to embodying the physical limitations of cystic fibrosis,” and even lost 25 pounds to prepare for his role. According to Sprouse, the portrayal of cystic fibrosis in Five Feet Apart was heavily informed by CF patients and medical professionals in the field.

Richardson revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that one of the most important things she did to prepare was learning about how cystic fibrosis affects a person growing up with a terminal illness, including everything from time spent in lengthy hospital visits, challenges that arise with navigating personal relationships, and how strongly a condition like CF can impact a person’s outlook on life.

Richardson ended with the sentiment that although there are limitations in the movie industry that prevented some things from being portrayed 100-percent accurately, that she hoped the cystic fibrosis community would “see this movie and really realize how much we cared and how much we wanted to do them justice.”

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