How Baseball Helped Nico Russo Win the Fight of His Life
Nico playing in Mid Island men’s league. Photo by Jim Leary.
You’d never know by Nico Russo’s easy-going nature what a fighter he is.
The infielder for Bario’s Marlins in the Mid-Island Men’s Baseball League smiles a lot, especially when he’s at the field.
Truth is, Nico has plenty of reason to smile. Six years ago, just before his sophomore year at New Dorp High School, he lost his ability to play sports — and nearly lost his life.
He contracted hemophagocytic hymphohistiocytosis, or HLH, a rare, life-threatening immunodeficiency. With a bit of good fortune, great doctors and hard work, Nico not only survived, but achieved his goal of playing high school baseball. And now he gives back, helping others with the illness realize there is hope while raising funds to help others get the same opportunity he had.
“We’re so proud of him,” his mom, Eleonora Russo, said. Nico, who turned 21 in August, played in the Staten Island Little League and Verrazano Babe Ruth League. When he got to high school, he played football only as a freshman, but was hoping to play varsity baseball like his father, Vince, did.
Nico’s plan was to stay with football as a sophomore and then try out for baseball as a junior. But the summer before his sophomore year, he found himself in the fight of his life.
One day, while attending summer classes in 2011, his legs began to feel weak and he started feeling sick. He went home early that day thinking his illness was mild, but the coming days proved it to be anything but. “My legs felt really tired and my eyes and skin were very yellow,” said Nico.
His mom called his pediatrician, Dr. Vincent Broillet, who insisted Nico be brought immediately to the emergency room at Staten Island University Hospital North upon hearing the symptons. “Dr. Broillet told us I was the sickest child in the hospital,” Nico said.
Eleanora confided something more frightening. “His organs were shutting down. We were told he might have only hours to live,” she said. Originally thinking their son was fighting a flu, the Russos suddenly found themselves conducting “a prayer vigil beside his bed in the ICU.”
But the family’s prayers were quickly answered.
“Out of nowhere, we were told that a doctor who wasn’t supposed to get there until September had arrived a month early,” said Eleonora, “She just so happened to be an HLH specialist.”
Dr. Sarah Vaiselbuh treated Nico for HLH, which in his case was triggered by the Epstein-Barr virus, causing his white blood cells to attack his body. Besides the yellow skin, his urine was cola black.
“HLH is fatal if not diagnosed quickly and properly,” Eleonora said. “There are so few doctors trained in recognizing and treating HLH that it often goes undetected. Many patients die before it can be diagnosed.”
The treatment was similar to that used to fight leukemia. His month in the hospital consisted of chemotherapy, steroids and cyclosporine pills, six blood transfusions and bone marrow tests. The treatment caused Nico to initially gain 90 pounds.
Once home, he couldn’t go outside for a year, meaning he had to be homeschooled during his sophomore year. Anyone who visited had to be disinfected. Obviously, participating in sports was out of the question.
“That was what upset me most,” Nico said. “It was a really hard time.” He was determined to get back into shape so he could at least realize his goal of playing baseball at New Dorp. He returned to school as a junior, but didn’t try out. He still had a lot of weight to lose, and started a diet and workout plan.
That June, Nico signed up to play baseball again after being away from the game for two years. “Getting in the batter’s box for the first time was nerve-wracking,” said Nico. “In my first 17 at bats, I had 17 strikeouts.”
But he refused to quit. And his parents were thrilled by his mere presence on the field.
“It didn’t really feel like Nico was truly healthy until he started playing baseball again,” said Vince.
When he wasn’t playing for his team, Nico worked out with his dad, who played high school baseball at Lafayette in Brooklyn. But then came another obstacle. At the beginning of Nico’s senior year in 2014 he bruised his ribs and had to miss baseball tryouts. New Dorp coach Ray Smith, however, gave him a chance to try out during practice sessions, and Nico was added to the roster.
“It was a great feeling and I loved the team,” said Nico, “It was definitely the best year of high school for me.”
These days, besides attending the College of Staten Island and working, Nico is helping to spread awareness of HLH. He has started his own foundation for HLH, selling bracelets that read “Heal, Love, Hope (HLH)),” and supports the annual run/walk at Hudson River Park called the 5K to Fight Histio each summer. Also, plans for a fundraiser are in the works to benefit Dr. Vaiselbuh’s HLH research group and the pediatric center at Staten Island University Hospital.
“Although Nicolas has made huge improvements and is now in remission for almost two years, it will be another three years before we are certain that he is truly healthy,” Eleonora said. “He has truly been a warrior, accepting all these new and unexpected challenges without complaint. His only wish has been for us to help him raise money and awareness for other families fighting this horrific disease.”
By Mike & Joe LoVerde
Local sportswriter Joe LoVerde coached youth sports on Staten Island for nearly 40 years. He’s now joined by his son, Mike, sandlot baseball player on the Island and a senior at Lyndon State College in Vermont, where he’s on the baseball team and majors in Electronic Journalism Arts.