Rick Franzo’s Facebook page is populated with joy-filled photos from his past. There are images of him as a Little Leaguer from 1975, on his wedding day in 1988 to his beloved wife Debbie, and of his two children, Eric and Amanda, in various stages of growing up. There is one other image that marks a troubling milestone in his life. It’s of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test taken in 2009 showing a massive tumor that had been growing for 10 to 15 years, a silent and potentially lethal invader at all the barbeques, family gatherings and vacations that have been chronicled over the years. Its presence became known during a game of horseshoes that ultimately led Rick to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation at Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg. Here, a team of therapists and caregivers devoted themselves to Rick’s recovery and a mission where failure was not an option.
It was a warm sunny day in May 2009 when Rick and his family gathered with some friends for a cookout. Rick was playing horseshoes when his throws became increasingly erratic and were falling far short of his usual skill level. The right side of his body grew weaker with each toss. Puzzled but not particularly alarmed, on the drive home Rick promised Debbie he would see a doctor that Monday.
“I was not much for going to see doctors, but this shook me up enough for me to go,” he writes in his book, How Horseshoes Saved My Life: A tale of two brain tumors. “I probably should have gone to the emergency room, but like I said, I’m not much for doctors.” That would soon change in a big way.
Rick’s doctor referred him to a neurologist who ordered an MRI that would show what, if anything, was going on in Rick’s brain to cause the weakness on his right side. On Friday, May 22, the neurologist called to tell Rick that he had a very large tumor on the left side of his brain. The tumor, which proved to be non-cancerous, was a meningioma that had grown on the outer layer of the brain and was so large it had pushed Rick’s skull out more than 4 centimeters. He was only 43 years old.
As frightening as the discovery was, Rick and Debbie were stunned to learn something even more horrifying.
“He (the neurologist) told us it was fortunate I was playing that game of horseshoes when the tumor hit critical mass and that I went to have it checked out,” Rick writes, “because if I hadn’t, I would have had two weeks or possibly less to live, because it was probable that I would have had a Grand Mal seizure or just slipped into a coma that I wouldn’t have awakened from.”
On Sunday, June 14, 2009, Rick underwent a 10½-hour brain surgery to remove the tumor which was the largest his neurosurgeon had ever seen in his 30 years of experience. When Rick came out of the anesthesia, he was horrified to discover that he couldn’t move his legs. “Once again, something I never considered would happen to me happened. I was paralyzed!” Rick writes in his book.
Depression set in hard as Rick struggled with profound fear that he’d never walk again. And he was dependent on others in a way he hadn’t been since he was a baby. “I was a rag doll with the capabilities of a 10-month-old,” says Rick. He couldn’t sit up on his own, bathe or toilet himself, or feed himself without spilling food all over.Rick was transferred to Good Shepherd’s Pocono facility, not far from his home in Paradise Valley, where he says, “I had to check my pride at the door, but they allowed me to keep my dignity.”
Terry Fitzmaurice, an occupational therapist, remembered when Rick arrived. “The first night, Hildy (his mom) came in crying,” says Terry. “That got to me, and the severity of the case and all of us being unsure how this was going to turn out. He was very frustrated because he’s a doer and a goer. I think his frustration was worse than the average soul.”
Rick had one goal recalls Terry. “The first time I met Rick, his comment to me was, ‘I’m gonna walk out of here.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. I hope we get him to that.’”
Rick was terrified, angry and depressed, but his determination was what all his therapists say was critical to his recovery as he launched into an aggressive program of three hours daily of physical, speech and occupational therapy. “Rick was one of the most determined patients,” says Judy Tierney, a licensed practical nurse who was on the therapy team. “He was on a mission.”
“We gave him the tools and he just flew,” adds Terry. “I saw therapists pull out things for him to do because he couldn’t get enough. He was like an eager school child.”
Rick’s wife, daughter Amanda, and mother, Hildy, were all part of Rick’s recovery, spending hours with him every day, and videotaping and photographing his progress. “His family went above and beyond, more than the average,” says Kellea DeFrank, a physical therapy assistant.
Two weeks after he arrived at Good Shepherd, Rick was walking with a walker and leg braces, an achievement that amazed his therapists. Five weeks and two days later, Rick did what he set out to do. “I walked out on my own power,” says Rick, who was still using the walker and braces, but powered each step on his own. “Good Shepherd did me solid. They’re like family. They really are.”
Rick, now 48, has long since rid himself of his walking aids and is back to work as a supervisor at The University Store for Barnes and Noble on the campus of East Stroudsburg University. He is a peer visitor on Good Shepherd’s Pocono unit, hosts a radio show on WESS-FM, “Catch the Brain Wave” on Fridays from 6 to 7 p.m., and has a support group on Facebook with 2,400 members from all over the world.
“I think that since this has happened, I’m a better father, husband, man, listener,” he says. “I wrote my book so others with brain tumors can see that there’s hope. It isn’t a death sentence.”
As for the “two brain tumors” referenced in the subtitle of Rick’s book? On February 7, 2011, an MRI revealed new tumor growth. To date, the tumor is stable and doesn’t require surgery. Rick just keeps forging ahead, grateful for each day.
“And so,” he writes, “the journey continues…”
(See more photos of Rick’s journey. His book can be ordered online at braintumortalk.com or you can find the e-version at Amazon.com.)