Ricca Parisella leads “Team Ricca” into the MS Walk this weekendby Andy Morales on Mar. 07, 2013, under Sports
Ricca Parisella was just a normal 12-year-old girl, playing high-level softball with her club team and going to school, until she woke up one day and she couldn’t see out of her left eye.
Her blindness lasted three weeks and she was diagnosed with optic neuritis. The exact cause of optic neuritis is unknown but it is often associated with autoimmune conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) but, since less than 5% of those diagnosed with MS had symptoms as a child, diagnosis for children as young as Ricca is very rare.
Even if Ricca was correctly diagnosed at the age of 12, the medications and disease modifications are still not fully tested for children. Instead, Ricca and her family were told her blindness was brought on by stress.
Ricca displayed classic symptoms for three more years but she remained active in the pursuit of her dream of one day playing college softball. “She had odd symptoms such as not being able to feel the bottoms of her feet,” explained her mother Patrizia.
“One day she told me her left hand couldn’t type as fast or as well as her right hand and she felt her motor skills were getting worse.”
It all became clear after a trip to California for a softball tournament when she was 16 and catching for one of the premier club teams in the country – Desert Thunder. As it turned out, Ricca had to catch a lot that week due to an injury to the other catcher and when she came home she discovered her left side was numb from her foot to her arm.
Her family knows the exact date of her diagnosis well because it’s easy to remember the moment when your child’s dreams end.
Parents have dreams for their children until children are able to dream on their own and it’s funny how the dreams of a child soon becomes the dreams of the parent. Parents will do almost anything to make those dreams come true and Ricca’s parents did all they could for their daughter.
They had been through this before….
Joe and Patrizia Parisella have an older son named Vinny but they also lost a daughter before Ricca was born at the age of only 6 months. Little Sylvanna died in 1994 from a liver condition that required a transplant and her story made the headlines in Tucson at the time.
“How much more can a parent take?” asked Patrizia.
“Why does this happen?”
Then, on August 10 of 2011, Ricca heard the news that she did, in fact, have MS. The softball trip to California led to a stay in the hospital that lasted three days.
“The doctor pinched me on both sides and I had no feeling on that side,” explained Ricca. “It was like I was paralyzed.”
An MRI confirmed lesions in the brain.
“I was pretty depressed in the hospital and I knew I had to quit softball when I was so close to getting a college scholarship. All those kinds of decisions were being made in those three days in the hospital. It hit me all at once,” Ricca added.
Ricca credits her father and her hitting coach Clint Wright for getting her through those early difficult times.
“It hit my father really hard,” Ricca remembered fondly. “We had a softball relationship. That was our thing and we were losing what we had.” This is something I totally understand. I have been in Joe’s shoes for almost 20 years….
College softball was still an option but the threat of a relapse and the fact that playing at the next level would be a definite increase in stress proved too much to overcome. That, and the treatment.
Ricca was getting monthly Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) injections but some studies suggest IVIG has no effect on MS at all and Ricca’s MRI’s began to show increased lesions in the brain.
She now injects herself every Sunday night with a course of a drug called Avonex. The medication has been shown to reduce the progression of MS and to reduce lesions and current MRIs show it is working for Ricca.
“We don’t live our lives like she has MS,” explained Patrizia. “She bikes, runs, lifts and, even when she is having a relapse, she will continue. She never lets it get in her way.”
A strange but touching outcome has been the closeness that has developed between Ricca and her mother as a result of her diagnosis. As you recall, her father traveled with her to softball tournaments but things were different with her mother.
“She was always out of state and I was home with my son and working,” explained Patrizia. “I never traveled with her and now I’m here for her to make sure she gets through her treatments and when she is having difficulty at school and home.”
For Ricca, however, telling her story was not something she looked forward to. “My issue isn’t that bad,” she said. “People don’t want to hear about my problems and I feel bad for those who have it a lot worse that I do.”
It took me several attempts and over a year to get Ricca’s story because I knew her issue was, in fact “bad” and that people would want to know about it because it would have the power to educate others.
5% may appear small to the medical world but these are children. While others have told me to step back and look at the bigger picture, I have always believed that there would not be a forest if not for the trees – each and every single one of them.
Ricca is not a young woman who wants sympathy. She knows her path has been redirected for a purpose. Part of her path is to finish out her softball career at Sahuaro where she is a senior catcher on the team.
“I worked for this as hard as I could,” Ricca added. “This is my last year of softball ever and I wanted to earn my spot on the team.”
Ricca earned her spot on the team and then some. She caught all 12 innings in the Cougars 3-2 victory over Salpointe on Wednesday.
Part of the process of “earning her spot” included working closely with her mom to set up a team to take part in the local MS Walk that is taking part this Saturday (March 9) at Reid Park (Ramada 22).
“Team Ricca” has raised over $3,500 and includes 80 participants. Her teammates, as well as members of Sahuaro’s student council, will be walking the 2-mile course with her. Registration opens at 8 am, the opening ceremonies are at 9 am and the Walk begins at 9:30 am.
MS has also touched my family. My sister’s husband has MS as a does a cousin. I am sure there are many more.
Ricca has plans to attend NAU after graduation. I’m betting on her new path – I wish a I was along for the ride.
Click HERE if you would like to donate to Team Ricca.