Written by Jessica Shillings
There’s no denying that, in the medical world, patients make the best advocates.
For starters, they have first-hand knowledge of what other patients are going through. Then there’s the fact that they make for good listeners, lending a sympathetic ear to a fellow human being undergoing a similar experience. They can answer questions that family and friends may not be able to, and they’re more accessible than physicians, who have busy schedules.
Many people who suffer from either a chronic or short-term illness feel a need to volunteer their time and energy to people currently suffering from the same ailments they endure. They want to connect.
That is certainly the case for these three Bakersfield residents, all of whom have turned a deaf ear on wallowing over illness, and, instead, champion for others fighting the same medical battles.
It’s been 17 years since Al De Risio underwent triple-bypass surgery, but his passion for reaching out to patients preparing for similar procedures hasn’t waned.
De Risio, who will turn 78 this month, is still as active as ever in the local chapter of Mended Hearts. As an accredited visitor for this national organization for well over a decade, De Risio spends his days visiting heart disease patients at Memorial Hospital, San Joaquin Community Hospital, and Bakersfield Heart Hospital. To date, he has visited over 1,100 heart surgery patients to share his message of hope.
According to its website, Mended Hearts “offers the gift of hope to heart disease patients, their families, and caregivers,” by connecting current patients with those who have undergone similar procedures before.
De Risio invites patients, and their families, to call him anytime with the questions that are on their mind. He can’t give medical advice, he tells them, but he can share experiences.
Despite the years that have passed, De Risio said he has never forgotten what being the patient felt like. His presence 17 years later confirms the fact that, “There is a life after heart surgery,” he added.
In the 1990s, De Risio had just retired from his career of almost 39 years with Rockwell International and moved to Bakersfield at his son’s suggestion when he found that he simply couldn’t ignore the signs of heart trouble any longer. This was despite the fact that the Los Angeles native had always prided himself on carefully managing his health. He often ran, even on his lunch hours. Despite these good habits, he would soon learn that a triple-bypass was necessary.
Immediately before and after his surgery, De Risio himself was visited by a Mended Hearts volunteer. This made a lasting impact that ultimately inspired him to get involved.
These days, De Risio, who has held a number of elected offices in the chapter, said the brief visits that he makes to patients continue to inspire him.
They are, in fact, “What keeps me going.”
When he isn’t visiting patients, De Risio golfs twice a week with a group of friends who call themselves the Seven Oaks Golf and Yacht Club, or the “SOGGYS”.
Both the national Mended Hearts organization, as well as the Bakersfield chapter (77), are celebrating significant anniversaries this year—60 years and 40 years of service, respectively. The local chapter meets on the third Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall at Memorial Hospital. The group continues to look for new members, and new visitors. The visitors must have had heart surgery themselves so that they can relate to the patients they serve.
That is the case for any type of patient-volunteer relationship, not just those suffering from heart disease.
Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer almost one year ago, Sofia Gonzalez-Post said her world has turned upside down—becoming a whirlwind of chemotherapy treatments and doctor appointments.
At this point, the Tehachapi resident and San Joaquin Community Hospital nurse seems to be making progress, albeit more slowly than she would like. She has recovered from two rounds of chemotherapy as well as a double mastectomy, is healthy enough to return to modified duty at work, and is even planning a trip to Greece next October.
The official diagnosis, delivered last April, came as a shock according to the San Diego County native, despite warning signs: a lump that immediately concerned her OB/GYN and other medical professionals she sought help from.
“I never knew a patient that was a nurse,” Gonzalez-Post said. “Even as a nurse I didn’t know what to expect.” As a result, when she was diagnosed, “I was afraid to do too much research. It [research] can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”
Now that she is again caring for patients, Gonzalez-Post said that the experience has had a profound effect on how she does her job.
“I believe that going through this ordeal has not only made me a better person, but a better nurse,” she remarked. “It has helped me view the hospital and medical world from a patient’s perspective.”
This means, “I think and I hope I can relate better to my patients and their families.”
In a recent experience, Gonzalez-Post said she met a patient’s spouse who had just finished her own round of therapy.
“Her husband was her strongest supporter through her ‘journey’ and now she was his support during his stay at the hospital,” she recounted. “I remember her saying we were sisters and I believe in a sense all women who go through this are sisters. I encouraged her to take care of herself so she could continue to be a support for her husband.”
Gonzalez-Post also relied on a strong support system. Even as a nurse, she said she simply trusted the expertise of her medical team, who she credits most of all for maintaining a true personal relationship with her. Her husband, Dwayne, and son, Robert, 24, a student at Cal Poly Pamona, as well as her large extended family, were there for her, too. They reached out to her in large and small ways, she said, including her son and nephews’ decision to shave their heads when she lost her hair.
Gonzalez-Post said she has also taken refuge in her faith. A Catholic who has attended Tehachapi’s St. Malachy Church for years, Gonzalez-Post reported that eventually, “I got to the point where I was ready to accept whatever God wanted for me.”
Now that she is back at work and seeing tentative progress, Gonzalez-Post wants to share her own story, experiences, and knowledge with others who might be facing similar situations.
In her words, “Sometimes, it helps to talk to someone who has walked in your shoes.”
But that can also apply to driving around in someone else’s shoes.
At 17, Bakersfield native Ryan Reed moved across the country to follow his long-time dream of becoming a professional NASCAR driver. That was in 2011; also the year he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. More than a year after receiving the news, Reed reported he hasn’t let his diabetes stop him from pursuing the winner’s circle.
Reed’s racing career began when he was four. In 2009, at the age of 15, Reed became the Legends Division Track Champion at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. He backed up his championship the following year at the same speedway by becoming the 2010 Rookie of the Year in the Super Late Model Division.
Just as he was nearing adulthood, the goal Reed had worked so hard for seemed finally to be within his grasp. It wasn’t easy, but he decided that moving was necessary to take his career to the next level. However, just months after the then 17-year-old Reed moved from Bakersfield to Moorseville, NC, he received some devastating news that would change his life forever. He was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in February 2011.
“I was devastated,” Reed, now 18, said of his initial reaction to the news. “I thought everything I had worked so hard for was a waste.”
This was something that both doctors, as well as Reed’s own research seemed to confirm—that he wouldn’t be able to pursue racing at the level he had always dreamed. While most of his internet research confirmed his worst fears, Reed did happen across one success story: a biography of racer Charlie Kimball who was himself diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 2007. Reed quickly contacted Dr. Anne Peters, MD, of USC Clinical Diabetes Program in California, the doctor who had worked with Kimball himself.
More than a year after his diagnosis, Reed said that despite his initial fears, he is still racing. In fact, in the 2011 season, Reed raced in many different series, racing surfaces, tracks, and cars, including the Pro Allstars Series, NASCAR Whelen All American, and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. He still trains hard every day, even while managing his insulin and blood sugar.
According to Reed, “Things are really coming together. I feel very blessed and fortunate.”
Both professionally and personally, “I’ve grown so much since then [the diagnosis],” he added.
Reed has focused on more than just his racing career over the last year. He also formed a nonprofit organization, Ryan’s Mission, “to help build awareness, become a role model, and positively touch the lives of so many that have already been affected by the disease.”
Reed’s organization has even partnered with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to help raise funding for their efforts. He is in fact a celebrity advocate for JDRF.
To learn about Reed and “Ryan’s Mission,” visit ryansmission.org/mission/.
Whatever the outcome, individuals who have gone through treatment for a serious disease have the ability to speak directly to current patients fighting a similar battle—they can inspire hope, offer support and suggestions, and truly connect with someone in a unique and beneficial way. And isn’t that what we’re all hoping for when we find we’re in our darkest hour?
Article appeared in our 29-2 Issue - June 2012