Dust Buster

updated 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS A YOUNG CHILD, AT AN AGE when other preschoolers were investigating the world and happily trading germs in the sandbox, Franco Ripple sat alone in his parents' Fort Lauderdale home, drawing Heinz ketchup bottles at the kitchen table. Sentenced to life indoors, a prisoner of severe asthma and allergies, he ventured outside only on doctor visits or when asthma attacks sent him gasping to the emergency room. Diagnosed as allergic to most foods, Franco was limited to a diet of ground beef, lettuce, peas, rice and soy milk. At 4, he weighed just 29 lbs. "It was," he recalls, "like living in a gigantic bubble."

Today, Franco Ripple comes, goes and eats more or less as he pleases, and it is impossible to imagine him as a sickly little boy. Now 15, he packs a sturdy 173 lbs. on his 5'10" frame. He plays tennis, lifts weights and plans to try out for the varsity football team at Pine Crest School, where he is a ninth-grader. "Gradually," says Dr. Jaime Alvarez, his longtime allergist, "he has turned around completely."

Franco has also turned his intellectual powers against his worst tormentor: the dust mite, a microscopic arachnid, often found in carpeting, that can trigger devastating allergy and asthma attacks. A precocious science student, so advanced he is allowed to use the University of Miami's electron microscope, Franco has devoted four years to the bug. He has researched how it is affected by humidity and proved that one mite, Blomia tropicalis, thrives in Florida, where it wasn't even thought to exist. "The first thing they tell kids doing a science project is, 'Pick something you like,' " he says. "I don't like suffering with allergies, but it was the thing closest to home."

For that study, Franco earned a first place in February at the Broward County Science and Engineering Fair. He has also won awards from Hitachi America Ltd. for his use of electron microscopy and from Kodak for his use of photography. One of his science teachers, Marcia Moore, credits Franco's advice with ending years of discomfort from sinusitis. "He had a great impact on my life," she says. "I had all the carpets removed from my apartment."

When Franco was small, his parents, Will and Dee Ripple, knew nothing of the enemy in their carpet, drapes and houseplants. "He started getting sick when he was 1," says Dee, 44, a homemaker. "It was infection after infection. The nightmare of my life was that he'd get near someone—God forbid somebody sneezed on him." Doctors ordered the Ripples to keep him in a sanitized environment: visitors had to be free of perfume, hairspray and pet hair. But nothing helped. "He was never really well," says Will, 57, a retired airline supervisor. "We couldn't get answers."

Dee finally found one in an unlikely place: a milk carton, where a notice for the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver urged asthma sufferers to call for help. The Ripples flew Franco there, and from 1987 to 1994 he had four sinus surgeries. Doctors discovered that his food allergies had been misdiagnosed and, with the exception of peanuts and shellfish, he began to eat a full diet and flourish. Eventually they diagnosed Franco with asthma and prescribed steroids.

But there were setbacks. At 4, Franco was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes disease, possibly brought on by the steroids, which so weakened his right hip that he couldn't walk. Physical therapy eased the problem, but he also developed rheumatoid arthritis, which called for more drugs. An asthma attack required Franco, then 6, to be revived by an EMS team—"he turned to me," Dee recalls, "and said, 'I'll never let that happen to me again, and I'll never let it happen to anyone else.' "

Franco's determination—plus medication, nutrition and the passage of time—helped him keep that promise. Anti-inflammatory drugs eventually eased his asthma, and today the condition is so well-controlled that he has stopped taking them regularly. His allergies persist, though, so he tries to avoid dust and pollen. "I'm susceptible to catching colds easily," Franco says. Yet he savors life in the wider world. He dates, acts in local community theater—and still likes to draw. Only now, instead of doing it home alone, Franco teaches other kids each Saturday when he volunteers at the local Boys & Girls Club. "I'm happy," he says. "I didn't know what I was missing."

D0N SIDER in Fort Lauderdale

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