When I met Romeo twenty years ago, he was a bad ass high school kid with the most beautiful eyes (my weakness), a love for anything fast: cars, bikes, the list goes on, and he was funny…so funny. How we came to be a couple is debatable. He would say that I pursued him, but I know that he definitely was after me. Either way, we spent the next 19 crazy years together.
Everyday with Romeo was an event. He was almost always happy and rarely serious. Having a serious conversation with him was a joke. He literally turned every matter into something humorous so that I would give in and drop the subject, no matter what it was.
Aside from being extremely quick witted and funny, Romeo was always very inquisitive. He had to know how things worked. He would take anything apart and put it back together. From the smallest things like a watch, to big things like cars, he just had to know how it worked. He didn’t care if it was old or brand new, he needed to take it apart. Often times, he would make himself crazy putting it back together. He was the same way with people, often asking complete strangers random and, sometimes, personal questions, but his sincerity always came through and his questions were always answered. He had a smile that could disarm anyone and he instantly made you feel at ease.
Because of these qualities, Romeo made friends very easily. I often felt as though people were just drawn to him. Sometimes I even resented it because I felt like I was always sharing him with someone. The phone was always ringing and people were always stopping by. Even when the conversation of having kids came up, I would try to put it off knowing that I would eventually be sharing him with our children, and for some reason I never felt like I had enough time with him. Little did I know how true that was.
In December of 2008, we had our first daughter, Amelina Juliet. She was just perfect. Romeo was in love as soon as he saw her. I remember Romeo holding my hand through the whole thing but as soon as Amelina arrived, he dropped my hand and ran to be by her. He didn’t leave her side for the rest of the day. I, on the other hand, slept. Rome would always remark that Amelina was so great, and if he had only known how amazing having her would be, he would have had her years ago. (Now I sometimes wish that too.) He just couldn’t get enough of her. He would kiss her everyday until she cried; he totally smothered her and he loved it. Then, in November 2010, I became pregnant again. We were excited to give Amelina a sibling and couldn’t wait until our second child arrived.
Earlier that month, Romeo had gone on a “business trip” with his cousins to Mexico. While there, they all propositioned each other to a three month weight loss challenge. They all put up money and the winner would take all. After three months, Romeo had lost 20 pounds, and though he was closer to his ideal weight, he really didn’t look it. We just chalked it up to being totally out of shape and him needing to work out a bit. Needless to say, he didn’t win the contest.
Shortly after stopping the diet, Romeo started to break out on his forehead, and began complaining of stomach aches. At first, we figured it was him returning to his bad eating habits that was causing these symptoms. Then his twin sister, Julie, mentioned to him that maybe he should get a colonoscopy. It had been years since his last one, and since their mother had passed away from colon cancer at age 35, they all believed annual colonoscopies were important.
His appointment was scheduled for the last week of March, but it was also the same day as my appointment to find out the sex of our baby, so Romeo rescheduled and moved it up a few days. When Romeo was done with his colonoscopy, he called me to pick him up. I remember wondering what had taken so long. It was much longer than usual, and honestly, I was starving, waiting for him so we could have a nice lunch since he hadn’t eaten the day before.
After he got in the car, I started to drive out of the hospital parking lot, he turned to me and said, “So, I have cancer”…WHAT?!?! Knowing that he didn’t really have a serious bone in his body, I told him that wasn’t funny and he really shouldn’t joke like that. He said he wasn’t joking, and again, I said, “Romeo, really, that’s not funny!” By the third time, I realized he wasn’t joking.
During his colonoscopy, his gastroenterologist, Dr. Schorr-Lesnick, had found a tumor, and that was all Romeo was told. The next day, he went for a CT scan of his abdominal area and we had to wait the weekend for his results. We tried not to worry too much all weekend, and put it out of our heads until Tuesday came when the doctor would discuss the results of the scan.
On Tuesday, April 5th, 2011, Romeo was told that he had stage four colon cancer. Dr. Schorr-Lesnick explained that it looked like the colon cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, kidneys, and possibly his liver. Dr. Schorr-Lesnick also mentioned that it was likely that Romeo had something called Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes one to higher than normal rates of colon cancer, as well as a variety of other cancers.
We all just sat there stunned. How could this be? I remember Romeo saying, “F&*#! I’m a dead man walking. How long do I have? Five years, seven years?” I remember thinking, “What? He’s crazy…seven years, that’s too short!” Dr. Schorr-Lesnick told us that she really couldn’t give us more information on treatment, but she set us up with an appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering on April 14th.
Right after the shock of the news, we were encouraged by Romeo’s family to get away for the weekend just to clear our minds. We weren’t keen on the idea, but realizing that we didn’t know what type of treatment Romeo would be going through in the near future, we decided to take our family trip to Disney a few months early. We jumped on a plane that Thursday and came back Wednesday night, just in time to go to Sloan-Kettering.
Our first trip to Sloan-Kettering was very encouraging. We met a gentleman in the waiting room who was there for his last visit. He was in remission and had just overcome colon cancer. It was a good feeling to know that he was in good hands and we both felt that things would be ok. After meeting Dr. Saltz, Romeo’s oncologist, we all (Romeo’s sister Gio, his Dad, Romeo and I) felt very confident that, although this was going to be hard, we would get through it ok. Romeo went ahead with the rest of the scans to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread to any other parts of his body, and he proceeded to get a port inserted for treatment.
The night before Romeo’s first chemotherapy appointment, his legs start to swell up. He had worked that day and he wasn’t in any pain, but was just shocked to see how swollen his ankles had gotten. By the morning, the swelling had gone down. Once we met with Dr. Saltz again, we were all on board to start chemotherapy that day. During his pre-chemo meeting with us, I mentioned the swelling in the legs, and the fact that Romeo’s acne was getting worse and that was very abnormal for him. This is where the “curve balls” began. Instead of chemotherapy, it was decided to biopsy his kidneys and the surrounding lymph nodes. Dr. Saltz suspected kidney cancer in addition to colon cancer. About a week later, we were told it was adrenal cancer, a super rare and aggressive cancer (only 1 in a million cancer patients develop adrenal cancer and only 1 in 100 million have adrenal and colon cancer simultaneously). Dr. Saltz happened to specialize in adrenal cancer as well, so he put a chemo regimen in action and we went ahead with chemotherapy.
By this point, Romeo’s legs were swelling up worse and worse everyday. The chemo seemed to help the swelling, but by the third week of chemo, Romeo’s potassium has dropped drastically and he needed to be hospitalized- yet another curve ball.
While in the hospital, Dr. Saltz decided that we needed to be more aggressive and fully remove the tumor on his adrenal gland, in his colon, and in the lymph nodes. On June 2, they did just that, approximating that 95% of the cancer was removed. Now we just needed to wait and have the incision heal which would take approximately three weeks, and then resume chemo and get rid of the remaining five percent.
After about a week home, Romeo’s stitches popped and we headed back down to Sloan-Kettering for emergency surgery to fix the tear. While we were there, the surgeon mentioned that the steroids that Romeo’s remaining adrenal gland was overproducing was the cause of him not healing properly. He stayed in the hospital for about four days. After his return home, he was there for only four days before he had to return back to Sloan-Kettering for shortness of breath. This time, it was discovered that Romeo had staph infection in his surgical incision and the port area. Romeo later told us that the nurse looked so scared when she saw how infected his port site was and said that someone should write a book about it one day. He was humored by her amazement and relished in being such an anomaly.
Once Romeo was finally released from the hospital the first week of July, we moved into his dad’s house to make it easier on him. His legs were still swelling up and his back was beginning to hurt. We had found that the over production of cortisol from the adrenal cancer had caused Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome is a horrible syndrome that causes high blood pressure, diabetes, skin ulcers, low potassium, acne, moon face, water retention, and osteoporosis, just to name a few. Romeo was textbook, slowly developing each ailment associated with it. The worst were compression fractures in his back, combined with the water retention making it painful for him to sit, stand, walk or even lay down.
Even with all the pain Romeo was in, he still remained positive and couldn’t wait until his wound healed to restart his chemo regimen, but nearly two months had past since his surgery and it wasn’t healed. Dr. Saltz decided that Romeo wouldn’t be able to restart chemo because the wound wasn’t healing and started him on Mitotane, a pill that would hopefully control his hormone production and stop the Cushing’s symptoms. We weren’t thrilled with the idea of not doing the cytotoxic chemotherapy, which was much more powerful. We figured if the Mitotane could control the cortisol, the wound would heal, and we could then resume the proper chemo.
Eight days after that meeting with Dr Saltz, Romeo and I welcomed our beautiful baby girl Valentina into the world. It was a bittersweet day for us. Romeo was in a lot of pain but nothing could keep him away from missing his daughter’s birth. He was in a wheelchair at this point, and though it was very different from Amelina’s birth, he was still there to hold my hand and to hold Valentina as soon as she was born. He was so happy and just stared at her in awe, smiling the whole time.
Valentina and I were set to be released from the hospital that Tuesday. Unfortunately, the day before, on Monday, August 15th, Romeo started feeling short of breath and again was admitted into Sloan-Kettering. The doctors at Sloan-Kettering wanted to keep Romeo for 48 hours while they ran some tests on his back to see if it was causing extra weakness in one of his legs, which was something he had been complaining about. With every test that they ran on him, his back was in more pain and he needed more pain meds. After a week, Romeo was still at the hospital and not moving around very much. He developed pneumonia and was rushed down to ICU. It was a very scary day, as the doctors told us that we needed to prepare to make some serious decisions in the next few hours.
I was so nervous but couldn’t believe this was to be the end. We all attended in the ICU waiting area as they set Romeo up in a room and got him on oxygen. That first day in ICU, I just held his hand and prayed. He seemed somewhat coherent, but he still was on a good amount of pain medications. By the next day, he was doing better; his breathing was stronger and he was more aware. Romeo stayed in the ICU for about a week and everyday his health seemed to improve. His attitude was still positive and he was genuinely feeling better; he was back to texting, taking pictures of himself, and even checking his Facebook page. Once he graduated back to a regular room, Romeo was in desperate need of physical therapy. He had lost a lot of muscle due to being bed ridden, combined with the muscle atrophy from the cancer and he wasn’t even able to walk. For the following 2 and a half weeks, he worked hard on regaining his strength and fighting back. He would walk the halls assisted, but walk none the less, saying, “I can do this”, or “F@#k this, I’m getting my life back!” He was determined to get better.
On September 20th, Romeo was released to Burke Rehabilitation Center to continue to build up his muscles so he could be somewhat self sufficient when he came home. Burke was hard for Romeo and he was still very sick so he couldn’t always do his therapy, but he tried.
On Sunday October 2nd, Romeo and I were married at Burke. Another very bittersweet day. Yes, we had been engaged for years and I had never made any plans to get married (something else I regret), but once Romeo went into the ICU, we put the paper work in motion. We had a small ceremony at Burke and planned on having something really big once Romeo was better. It was very simple and sweet; as Romeo stared at me and said his vows, my heart melted. He never looked at me more lovingly than he did that day. I will never forget it.
That Tuesday, Romeo was told he would be going home the following week. We were so happy, but later that night, he developed a fever. We headed over to the local hospital in the hope that it was nothing, but one look at him, and the doctors noticed that he was very dehydrated. It was determined that he had pneumonia again. The ER doctors seemed very confident and Romeo was at ease being there; he slept most of the night and in the morning he was moved to a room.
Once in a room, Romeo seemed ok. He had rested well the night before, even sat up to eat a burger. I was amazed since it was the most he had eaten in days. But when he moved positions in the bed, he was suddenly gasping for air. It was so scary. At that point, he was placed on more oxygen to help his breathing. The doctors also decided to place him in critical care to monitor him better.
That night was the worst for Romeo, as his breathing became more of an issue and his kidneys were failing. Even with all that was going on in his body, he still remained mentally strong. Romeo’s body was failing him, but he still tried to breathe on his own, only he couldn’t do it for very long. By morning, Romeo knew it was to be his last day.
On Thursday, October 6, 2011, four days after we were married, seven weeks after Valentina was born, six months and one day after his diagnosis, after all his friends and family went home, Romeo passed away with me, his sisters and his dad by his side. He was only 36 years old. He was the love of my life and his love made me the person I am today. He will forever be missed.
Romeo touched so many people and left an impression with anyone he met. He was brave, strong, courageous and an inspiration to us all. Over a thousand people came to his wake, and the funeral procession was two miles long. It is my hope that this foundation can change lives, just like Romeo did mine. Everyone deserves the chance to live life to the fullest and enjoy every second like Romeo did.