“The Dr. told me that there might be a chance that I won’t survive and I told him that’s okay,” said James Rizzitello, a Chief Petty Officer in the Coast Guard Reserves stationed at King’s Point, N.Y.
The 45-year-old Long Island native and father of three, is no stranger to devotion and sacrifice. Rizzitello, who has been with the Coast Guard and the New York Police Department for more than two decades, has experienced a lot throughout his career, but nothing compares to his personal story as a devoted father.
Nearly 15 years ago, the loving father made the decision, without hesitation, that could have ended his life in order to save his 3-month-old daughter. This week, the youngest contestant on the hit show, NBC’s “The Voice” will try to out perform another competitor on her idol’s team. MarissaAnn, a member of pop singing sensation Christina Aguilera’s team, was given a second chance at life before she could even talk.
Soon after MarissaAnn was born, Rizzitello and his wife, Maria, noticed that something wasn’t right. She was sleeping a lot and her skin was yellow. Although, jaundice wasn’t uncommon in newborns, they began noticing that her belly was swollen. They took MarissaAnn to the Dr. to determine what was going on with her. Rizzitello, sensing that something was wrong with the pediatrician’s sudden nervous reaction took the Dr. aside and asked if it was serious. His reply was that it could be very bad. They needed to take her to the hospital right away.
Blood tests and a liver biopsy were conducted on the tiny infant. The result was devastating to the family; MarissaAnn was diagnosed with a rare liver disease called Biliary Atresia. The disease only affects infants and causes bile to remain in the liver, which attacks the liver cells.
MarissaAnn was put on a waiting list for a liver transplant but her condition was deteriorating rapidly. Desperate to save his daughter’s life and knowing that it could cost him his own, Rizzitello was screened to be a donor.
“I decided that it was something that I was going to do,” said Rizzitello. “It was something that I felt that I had to do. I wound up having the same blood type as her and as long as I knew she was going to be okay, it didn’t matter.”
Rizzitello paused and took a few deep breaths as he reflected on that decision and how it could have ended. As tears began to well up in his eyes, he looked up and recalled a conversation with his mother just before he went into the operating room.
“I remember one thing that my mother said to me when they were wheeling me into the OR, she said, ‘Goodbye.’ I said, ‘don’t say goodbye, see you later.’”
At six months old, MarissaAnn and her father underwent the liver transplant surgery. Hours after the painstaking procedure to replace the tiny damaged liver with a partial liver; Rizzitello awoke gasping in pain and shortness of breath due to the large incision. Feeling extremely groggy, he asked about his daughter.
“I knew I had to see her; I was just so happy and relieved,” Rizzitello said. “But it was scary to know that there was still a long journey ahead of us.”
During the six months following the surgery, the Rizzitello family made the 3-hour trip from their home in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. to St. Christopher’s Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia for MarissaAnn’s weekly progress checkups.
“MarissaAnn was like a new baby,” he said. “She was very active and eating a lot.”
Rizzitello jokingly said the doctors weren’t as concerned with him. He was extremely healthy and preparing for his first marathon, although on occasion, he experienced pain from the scar tissue left from the giant cross-shaped incision covering his chest and stomach.
As a result of the surgery and recovery, Rizzitello was out of work for six months. But throughout his ordeal, they had a lot of support from friends and family members including Coast Guard members from his unit, who he said he’d known for years and were like family to him.
“That’s one thing that the Coast Guard always stresses is to take care of your shipmates,” Rizzitello said with a smile. “Be there for each other and look out for them. It’s made me a better father.”
He recalls one memory of MarissaAnn’s early childhood when the vivacious 6-year-old girl came home from kindergarten with a note from her teacher saying that she has something special, that her voice sounds angelic.
“The ironic thing is that after the whole ordeal changed my life, I’ve always said she’s my little angel,” said Rizzitello. “And when she came home with that note, I was like oh my gosh.”
That moment inspired the Rizzitello family to hire a voice coach and encourage their daughter to pursue her dream of becoming a singer and performing on stage. MarissaAnn says that music has helped her get through her ordeal by putting her emotions into her singing and connecting with the music. But it hasn’t always been easy for the teenager. As a result of the transplant MarissaAnn has a suppressed immune system, decreasing her body’s ability to fight infections and has to take medication for the rest of her life.
“There were many highs and lows and lots of struggles at times and my dad was there to pick me up and encourage me every single time,” MarissaAnn explained. “I don’t know if I could have ever done it without him. We are a team!”
Because of their situation, the father/daughter team shares a special bond and they are extremely close. He’s been able to bring her underway aboard his unit’s Coast Guard boat and he took her to “The Voice” audition in Los Angeles.
“My dad has been the biggest support throughout every experience,” MarissaAnn explained. “I believe my dad being in the Coast Guard makes him an even better dad. He is protective yet loving and always wants to help people and I feel that his traits inspire me everyday.”
Rizzitello shares that a woman from Staten Island, N.Y. had contacted him saying that her granddaughter was also diagnosed with Biliary Atresia and had undergone a liver transplant. The woman told him that his daughter is an inspiration for their family, knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m just so grateful for my dad being such a selfless person that he would have given his life for me and that is something I realize and am so grateful for everyday,” said MarissaAnn.
Rizzitello and MarissaAnn hope to raise awareness about this disease and continue to inspire families with their story of love and hope.
“Everyone always says to me, you’re a hero, but I tell them that I did what any other father would do.” Rizzitello concluded.