Jewell Cardwell

Tim Rickus and his four daughters really hit it out of the ballpark in designing a special party for his wife and their mother, Teresa.

It was an evening like no other, one that covered all of life’s good bases: faith, family, friendship, love, hope, courage, joy and generosity.

“It’s not going to be an ordinary surprise birthday party.” Rickus had earlier promised.

He didn’t disappoint.

The cavernous party room at Chenoweth Country Club in Green was packed Wednesday night with more than 200 well-wishers from all walks of life, even the doctor (oncologist/hemotologist Ronald Sobecks) and nurse (Elaina Corbett) who had tended to Teresa Rickus at the Cleveland Clinic after life tossed her a curve ball.

After her 18-month journey fighting the same diagnosis as ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, it was cause to pull out all of the stops.

The challenge this evening became how to harness the crowd’s enthusiasm to a hush so as not to send Teresa into shock when she walked into the room and everyone yelled “surprise!”

They managed — albeit with lots of bear hugs and tears of joy.

“One year ago on April 24, 2012, when my wife, Teresa, should have been out enjoying her milestone 50th birthday, she was in the Cleveland Clinic fighting for her life,” Tim Rickus said.

“On that day she underwent a stem-cell transplant that was donated by her sister, Jacqui [Clark of Manchester]. This was the only potential cure for a disease known as MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome) that turned into acute myeloid leukemia.”

Teresa is not quite out of the woods yet, as she could develop graft-versus-host disease from the transplant.

Robin Roberts, you may recall, was also given stem cells from her sister, Sally-Ann Roberts, to treat MDS. Good Morning America has been celebrating her return.

Thanks to sister

The Rickuses — Tim, Caitlin, Hannah, Gabriel and Emma — aptly called Wednesday’s event “A Celebration of Life.” And not just of Teresa’s life, but also that of her sister, who made it all possible.

“My goal is to bring awareness to Jacqui’s wonderful gift, and celebrate life with my wife on her 51st birthday or rebirth,” Tim Rickus said, in keeping with the evening’s overriding theme of promoting the National Marrow Donor Program: Be the Match, encouraging people to help save a life like Jacqui did. Learn more and register at http://marrow.org, he implored in his open love letter.

The party’s guest list was “full of wonderful people who supported the Rickus family through this time of total uncertainty,” Tim Rickus continued.

They were there in the flesh, yes, but also well represented by hundreds of cards of support sent to Teresa at the clinic. She saved them all, and they lined the party room’s windowsills and a huge table.

This was a party like no other on yet another level, as Tim’s second cousin, John Schmitt, of Stow pointed out: “You will find more transplant stories in this one room than you could ever imagine,” including his own.

Schmitt was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and received a kidney transplant 18 years ago from his brother Paul of Arizona.

A family history

The Rickus family has a long history of PKD. Tim Rickus himself donated a kidney in 2000 to his sister Theresa Cerney of Dallas. Their father, the late Bernie Rickus, had a successful kidney transplant from his brother Don.

Mary Ann Rickus of Tiffin, Tim’s aunt, received a cadaver kidney transplant 13 years ago.

“It was a six-point out of a six-point match. What a blessing it’s been!” exclaimed Mary Ann, who had been on dialysis for a year before the transplant.

Tim’s mother, Maggie Frame of Tallmadge, has stood watch and been a tower of strength for all of them.

Sprinkled around the room were others intimately involved and happily embracing the transplant journey.

Kim Forsythe (Teresa and Jacqui’s first cousin) of Cuyahoga Falls, diagnosed with bladder cancer, is a three-year bladder transplant recipient.

City of Medina service director Nino Piccoli of Sharon Center, who attended with his wife, Jennifer, and daughter Alexis, underwent an autologous stem cell transplant (his own cells, harvested earlier) at the same time as Teresa, but at nearby University Hospitals. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“How blessed we are,” Tim said, speaking for the entire room. “To have a room so full of people who can share their faith, values and true friendship is just another blessing on this road to recovery.”

His grateful wife, a woman of a few words who shies from the spotlight, agreed.

Retired Cleveland Diocese auxiliary bishop Alexander James Quinn underscored that same message of gratitude in his prayer: “Each year as we celebrate another birthday we recall the gift of life which we have received from God. This year we add the unique gift of life that Teresa’s sister Jacqui gave to Teresa.”

Father William “Bill” Brown, parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in Parma, and stepfather of Teresa and Jacqui, also was on hand to offer special prayers.

Night to remember

But mostly it was an evening of merriment, memories and music.

One song in particular comes to mind for those on the transplant journey and those holding out hope. And that’s Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow): “Open your eyes and look at the day / You’ll see things in a different way.”

If you doubt it, just ask Teresa, Jacqui, John, Mary Ann, Tim, Theresa, Kim, Nino and all the others!

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com