March 18, 2014 03:23PM
By DOUG CHAMPION
Sun Staff Writer
HOPE VALLEY — Mike Marsella has run many races through woods and around tracks as a Chariho High distance runner and University of Virginia sophomore.
He now is participating in a very different kind of race that depends not on his running skills but on the generosity of the community.
Marsella has volunteered to be one of 10 former Hasbro Children’s Hospital patients to tell his story and raise money in the hospital’s inaugural Race to $20K. Each of the 10 families hopes to raise $2,000 in time for Hasbro’s 10th annual Radiothon on April 3.
Countless stories have been written about Marsella’s extraordinary athletic accomplishments. In his junior and senior years at Chariho, he broke every school record in the middle-to-long distances; earned honors at the All-American, All-Northeast and All-State levels; and was named both Gatorade Rhode Island Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year and Cox Communications Male Athlete of the Year. And he earned all-conference honors this month at U.Va.
But the story about Marsella’s enormous medical challenges and his life altering if not life saving spinal surgery at Hasbro midway through his freshman year at Chariho has not been widely shared or known.
Like former radio commentator Paul Harvey’s trademark saying, there’s much more to learn from “The Rest of the Story.”
The Rest of the Story
Marsella vividly described his freshman year nightmare and feelings in a senior essay, which he shared then with his coach and now The Westerly Sun.
“It is 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m surrounded by darkness in my friend’s bedroom. I lay, with my back against the cold wall, sweating, my eyes beginning to well up with tears. The mysterious pains keep itching inside of me and I can’t get rid of them.
“When I look at the clock again, time has stalled; every second passes like hours as I rest against the wall with my hand clenched deep into my hip, where the pain forcefully screeches out.
“Dreadfully still five more hours until daylight, where I can locate my next dose of ibuprofen. Five more hours until my never ending nightmare can be tamed ... but not resolved. Unfortunately this was a typical night as an undetected benign tumor the size of a golf ball forced my spinal column into a daunting 50-degree curve.
“For two years, I rotated between three separate back braces throughout the course of the day in an attempt to stop what most doctors thought to be a standard case of scoliosis. My true passion, sports, began dwindling away, as every week I lost more and more feeling to the lower half of my body.
“I could no longer keep up with other kids because my feet flopped, and I started to lose control over my bladder. My sister had to pick me up off the ground and drag me the length of the road to catch our school bus because my legs felt like bean bags.
“With no time to spare, the doctor scheduled an emergency MRI (at Hasbro). At last, they finally discovered the source of my decline, and I was rushed into emergency spinal surgery. A week or two longer without surgery and the rest of my life would have been spent with paralysis from the waist down, never to walk again.”
From Walking to Running
Marsella rehabbed in the hospital for three weeks, literally learning to walk again. He was home tutored for two months and then got permission to serve as a manager for the Chariho baseball team (then his favorite sport). His doctors recommended he apply his athletic passions to the non-contact sport of running, something that both of his parents did in high school.
Marsella ran cross country and track his sophomore year, but did try baseball until he torqued his back diving for a fly ball in preseason practice. That redirected him to outdoor track. His mother Kelly recalled that Michael finally said, “I guess God is telling me I’m supposed to run.”
He has ever since.
“Mike has been absolutely amazing,” Chariho coach Bill Haberek said. “I had no idea the extent of his back problems and pain at the beginning. I always tell the kids that everyone has bumps on the road, hurdles to climb. It only makes you tougher.
“It will always stick in my mind how tough he was. How much discomfort can you take? The pain Mike endured in races was much less than he endured before his operation. Having gone through all of that made him that much tougher. Definitely, he is one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached.
“Mike is well spoken and very humble for all he’s accomplished. Telling his story and trying to raise money for Hasbro says a lot about the person. He’s trying to give back. That speaks volumes about the type of person that Mike is. He’s very special.”
Hasbro’s $20K Initiative
Hasbro Children’s Hospital is the pediatric division of Rhode Island Hospital and a teaching hospital of the Brown University Medical School. It is dedicated specifically to the care of children and opened its doors 20 years ago.
“When they were building the hospital,” Kelly Marsella said, “ I remember watching and saying out loud ‘I hope I never see the inside.’ But I did (much later). It’s so great to have this in our backyard. It’s life-saving. It gives back the gift of life.
“As a mother, when you face something that is life-threatening, your first prayer is that your child doesn’t die. Then you hope he’s not paralyzed, and then that he gets back to normal. Hasbro saved my son’s life. It was a really positive, positive experience. The Race to $20K is an opportunity to give the gift of life to someone else.
“Hasbro means so many things to us. It was seeing Michael on the steps of the hospital showing us how he could lift his foot again. It’s seeing him run and play sports again. It’s the quality of their care. It’s a support network we could rely on. I didn’t feel alone. I could stay right in his room. I never left his side.
“It’s also where the kids are not isolated. When Michael was learning to walk again, he worked with another kid — a 4-year-old. Michael was much taller and the kid would look up to him. There was a sense that everybody’s struggling here. Nobody is all alone.”
Development officer Karli Blossom said that the annual Radiothon has raised more than $6 million in the past nine years, all of which goes to the hospital to support special programs and needed equipment.
Examples include a shopping mall for kids hospitalized over the holidays, speech generating devices for speech-impaired children, an art-while-you-wait program in waiting rooms, a program for siblings of children with an illness or disability, and access to a sleep-away camp for kids with asthma which includes an educational program for their families.
This year’s Radiothon will take place from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, and can be heard on WPRO (630 and 99.7), 92 PRO-FM and Lite Rock 105.
Donations in the name of Mike Marsella can be made beforehand online or by mail. If by credit card, go to the Race to $20K website (www.hchradiothon.org/mikemarsella), read Mike’s story, click on “Support Me” and follow the prompts. If by check, make it payable to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, write Marsella in the memo line and mail it to Karli Blossom, Office of Development, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, P.O. Box H, Providence, R.I. 02901.
Marsella said he wants to give back to the community and hopes ultimately to pursue a career in sports medicine and orthopedics to help other athletes never let injuries slow down their dreams.
“I can say that this hospital did much more than just save my life,” Marsella said in his story posted on the Radiothon website.
“It gave me the strength and confidence to never give up.
“What helped me get through the pain and fear the most was knowing that people out there truly cared about me and my well being. Every gift that you give does make a difference, because every child deserves the chance to be healthy and to chase their dream.”