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Young parents in St. Petersburg struggle with their children's illnesses

Ryleigh Russo, 2, looks at her mother, Theresa Russo, as they spend time together in Ryleigh’s room at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. Ryleigh, recently diagnosed with leukemia, also had to have her appendix removed.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Ryleigh Russo, 2, looks at her mother, Theresa Russo, as they spend time together in Ryleigh’s room at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. Ryleigh, recently diagnosed with leukemia, also had to have her appendix removed.

ST. PETERSBURG

The newborn baby shook, gasping for air. He isn't screaming, Dennis Russo thought. Why isn't he screaming?

For the second time in two days, the young father wondered whether one of his children would survive the night.

• • •

Classic control freaks, Theresa and Dennis Russo had their entire lives planned out.

Dennis, 30, teaches history at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. Theresa, 31, was going to start teaching in the fall. Their 2-year-old daughter, Ryleigh, would start preschool soon, and a new baby was on the way.

Their lives were seemingly perfect. And then, very quickly, their lives were anything but.

At first, the Russos didn't think anything was wrong when Ryleigh suddenly began to complain of fatigue.

Then, bruises began to appear all over her body. Toddlers fall and bump into sharp objects all the time.

Even so, in late May, the Russos took Ryleigh to All Children's Hospital, just to be safe. The diagnosis nearly paralyzed them. Their bubbly, vibrant little girl had leukemia.

Ryleigh began chemotherapy right away. She complained only of stomach pain.

On top of everything else, Ryleigh had to have her appendix removed.

Last Wednesday, hours after the surgery, the Russos sat with their recovering daughter in her hospital room. The worst was over, they hoped.

In two days, on Friday, Theresa planned to give birth to a healthy baby boy.

Unlike Ryleigh's surgery, Baby Reece's arrival was an expected distraction. They couldn't wait.

• • •

The delivery was routine. Nothing had happened to explain why Reece was having problems breathing.

The baby was whisked away for tests and X-rays.

That night, as his wife recovered in one hospital bed, Dennis visited his two children.

In one hospital room, his daughter lay hooked up to machines in a morphine-induced sleep, a fresh 6-inch scar on her belly. In another hospital room, tubes and metal pumped air into his newborn son's lungs.

Silently, Dennis asked God: Why?

• • •

The weekend went by in a blur.

Reece was diagnosed with persistent pulmonary hypertension. His lungs didn't work. Nurses promised the Russos they would train their son's lungs to breathe.

Ryleigh's hair began to fall out from the chemotherapy. She giggled as she pulled out her long, brown hair and watched cartoons. Dennis laughed, too, careful to conceal his horror.

One moment, there was good news: Reece was breathing more easily.

Then there was bad news: Ryleigh suffered two infections from the surgery.

After all that, the Russos began to take each development in stride.

Their son might one day need an artificial lung, or in two weeks, he could be breathing fine on his own.

Their daughter could face a long bout with cancer, or she could be cured before it's time to enroll her in kindergarten.

These are things they now know they can't plan for.

"It's the ultimate test of humility," Dennis said Tuesday, as he sat in the waiting room at All Children's Hospital. "We are not in control. Everything is in God's hands."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Young parents in St. Petersburg struggle with their children's illnesses 06/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 4:26pm]
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