Five Feet Apart, out March 22, is poised to join The Fault In Our Stars in the pantheon of tragic teen love stories. The premise is enough to induce full body chills. Teenagers Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will Newman (Cole Sprouse) meet in the corridor of a hospital. They both have cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disorder that especially affects the lungs and limits a persons' ability to breathe over time. CF causes a life-threatening buildup of mucus in the lungs and other organs.
The film gets its title from the "six feet apart" rule instituted to prevent cross infection between CF patients. So, while people with CF can be intimate with people who don't have the disease, they have to maintain a strict six foot-distance from other CF patients. That means as much as Stella and Will want to touch, they can't. It's quite a setup for a movie – and it has basis in real life.
The romance in Five Feet Apart bears a signifiant resemblance to Katie Prager (nee Donovan) and Dalton Prager's highly publicized love story — the media called them the real-life Fault in Our Stars couple. As you'll see in Five Feet Apart, the course of Stella and Will's relationship runs quite differently than Katie and Dalton's, but the circumstances are very similar.
As 18-year-olds, Katie and Dalton met in 2009 on a Facebook page for sufferers of cystic fibrosis. Like all CF patients, the teenagers could not be physically intimate, though they shared love messages back-and-forth. The risk of cross infection was heightened because Dalton had Burkholderia cepacia, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics that often leads to lung function decline. This particular bacteria is a major plot point in Five Feet Apart: Will has b. cepacia, making it even more essential that he stay away from Stella.
At risk of potentially getting b. cepacia herself, Katie's doctor recommended she not meet Dalton in person. Katie went anyway — their first date was at a fair. She soon contracted the infection.
Two years later, in 2011, Katie and Dalton were married (she took his last name). “I knew that there was a possibility that we would get sicker and something could happen,” Katie told People. “I just told Dalton I’d rather have somebody that I was totally in love with for five years, than be either lonely or not as happy with somebody for 20 years.” For some time, Katie and Dalton carried out a conventional life: They bought a house, traveled, and socialized.
The last time the Pragers saw each other in person was their fifth wedding anniversary on July 16, 2014. Katie surprised Dalton at the hospital in Kentucky where he was receiving treatment. "The look on his face was just as happy and in love as the day he saw her coming down the [aisle] dressed in her beautiful white dress. His love for her was like no other. She made him so very happy," Dalton's mother, Renee, wrote on Facebook.
Following that reunion, the Pragers each got lung transplants; his in November 2014 and hers in 2015. Both experienced serious health complications following their surgeries. Though Dalton hoped to travel from Missouri to Kentucky to see his wife again, he was too sick. After Dalton was put on a ventilator, the couple FaceTimed, though their parents weren't sure if Dalton could hear Katie.
Dalton Prager died on September 17, 2016 at the age of 25. "Dalton fought a long hard battle with cystic fibrosis," Katie posted on Facebook. "He was a courageous fighter and 'give up' wasn't in his vocabulary."
Five days later, Katie passed away. She was 26. After her death, Katie's mother, Debra Donovan, posted a message on Facebook: "The days to follow will not be easy but I find comfort in knowing that my girl lived, she really lived."
Now, Dalton and Katie's shared Facebook page serves as a kind of memorial to the couple. It is frequently updated by the couple's family members.
The final credits of Five Feet Apart hint at another major inspiration, especially for the character of Stella. The film is dedicated to a woman named Claire Wineland. Like the character Stella, who constantly has her camera in hand, Wineland documented her experience with CF in a series of brave and honest YouTube videos. With over 300,000 followers, Wineland was a public figure in the YouTubing world, as well as one in the CF community.
Wineland served as a consultant on the film. Tragically, Wineland wasn't able to see the final product. She passed away in September 2018 at the age of 21 following complications from a lung transplant.
Claire Wineland and the Pragers are real examples of young people with cystic fibrosis who lived to the fullest. Five Feet Apart may be fictional, but the disease is very much real. In the United States, more than 30,000 people are living with cystic fibrosis. Five Feet Apart aims to depict their experiences with compassion and accuracy.