'Extraordinary Measures': My visit to the Crowley home


I was lucky enough to write the cover story for our February/March 2010 issue of Irish America magazine, which meant interviewing Brendan Fraser, the star of "Extraordinary Measures," as well as John and Aileen Crowley, upon whose real life the film is based.

I saw "Extraordinary Measures," also starring Harrison Ford and Keri Russell, at a screening on December 17. I didn't have much of an idea of what to expect: the thing about a press screening is that you have the opportunity to see the film before reading reviews, without seeing the trailers or magazine ads or subway posters that have since sprung up everywhere.

I did know that the screenplay was based on the story of John Crowley, one of Irish America's Business 100 honorees, and his family. When two of John's children were diagnosed with Pompe disease, John and his wife Aileen risked everything to take up the cause, raising money for research and founding a start-up that eventually joined up with a larger pharmaceutical corporation, which developed a treatment for Pompe that John credits with having saved his children's lives.

"Extraordinary Measures" compresses the timeline of the Crowleys' experience, and merges several doctors into the Harrison Ford character. But many of the day-to-day scenes of the family's interactions, the most touching moments that they share, and the witty banter between them are lifted straight from the Crowleys' real lives.

This movie made me cry, a lot: admittedly not an incredible feat (I often have to leave the room during that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial). But it also made me laugh. Fraser and Russell have great chemistry together, and even when Harrison Ford is ninety-nine years old I will never tire of watching that smirk that starts in one corner of his mouth. The kids in the movie, played by Meredith Droeger, Diego Velazquez and Sam Hall, give the story their whole hearts, and Meredith especially, who nails Megan Crowley's sarcastic humor on point, has plenty of show-stopping moments.

I came out of the "Extraordinary Measures" screening moved and inspired, but I assumed this was largely due to the screenplay. I didn't expect that the Crowleys themselves would so blatantly exude the same warmth, humility, grace, motivation and humor that the movie grants them.

I was absolutely wrong.

The next day, December 18, I took a train from Penn Station to Princeton, New Jersey to meet the Crowleys: John, Aileen, John Jr., Megan, and Patrick. Of all the interviews I’ve done, I was especially excited about this one, and was intent on executing it with as much sensitivity, efficiency and professionalism as possible. My appointment at the Crowleys' house was at 4 p.m.

By 4:15, I was still stuck at the Princeton train station with eleven dollars, one bar left on my cell phone, coffee on my pants and no idea how to get to their house.

Several mildly panicked phone calls later, with the help of the Crowleys' publicist and my editorial assistant, I was on the phone with Aileen Crowley and felt much less like a professional journalist than a lost kid.

Luckily for me, Aileen happens to be the best mom on the Eastern seaboard.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I said to her, my hands practically frozen to the payphone’s receiver and my nose running like a three-year-old. “My train was delayed and my directions indicated your house was much closer to the train station and none of the cab companies I’ve called recognize your address and I can’t find an ATM and my cell phone’s about to die.” I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, offering a string of shoddy excuses to a family who, when faced with impossibly challenging circumstances, offered none at all but rose to the occasion in a fashion incredible enough to be the subject of two full-length books and a major motion picture. Talk about putting your own problems in perspective.

“Oh, it’s fine!” said Aileen. “I just walked in the door.” And with that, she gave me perfect directions, told me to take my time, and, in the way that only a mom who is very, very good at her job can do, made everything better.

The rest of my visit with them, while it went much more smoothly than my arrival, was just like that: the Crowleys are gracious, welcoming, insightful and incredibly funny. See the movie, but read about their journey too. It's pretty extraordinary.

The Crowley Family Story, Part One: The Disease

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