Linda Rossi: Founder, Chrissy’s Wish

0 Posted by - May 18, 2011 - Fortune 52

Linda and Mario Rossi of Dix Hills were childhood sweethearts who married and had four children, Joe, Chrissy, Diana and Angela. Mario worked three full-time jobs so Linda could stay home and raise their family.

Linda had always wanted to be a nurse, so when the children were older, she went to nursing school. After graduating as the valedictorian, she became a hospice nurse, a vocation that was a natural extension of her compassionate and spiritual nature. “I always felt I could help make that transition to the next life,” she says. She can still recall her daughter Chrissy telling her, “You are so lucky that you know what you want to do.”

All was right in the Rossi’s world until Chrissy turned 13. “She was pulling away and we knew that something wasn’t right,” Linda says. Chrissy went to the school psychologist who later told Linda that her daughter was extremely depressed and was thinking about killing herself but she didn’t want her parents to find her. Linda and Mario sent their daughter to in-patient treatment for three months, and thus Chrissy’s lifelong struggle with mental illness began in earnest.

According to studies, more than 60 million adults in the United States are affected by some type of mental illness. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the world, statistics show, with depression as the primary source of disability for people aged 15 to 44.

When a child breaks a bone, the family can help her recover and see to her immediate needs. But when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the families are often left on their own to sort through conflicting medical advice.

With her family’s support, Chrissy finished high school and went on to graduate from Suffolk Community College. She expressed an interest in having a career working with children. “I believe her illness gave her an insight on how to help others with compassion and love,” Linda says.

When Chrissy was in her early 20s, she was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while suffering through the highs and lows of the disorder, was hospitalized again. Linda remembers that in the spring of 2006, Chrissy’s depression deepened even more.

Chrissy was living in Queens in an apartment in her grandmother’s house. “At that time, my husband and I were tag-teaming; one of us was always with her,” Linda explained. “On July 21, Chrissy called me and said she was going to come out [to see us],” Linda says. She called again to say she’d changed her plans and was staying home, but she assured Linda that she was fine.

That night at around 3 a.m., Linda awoke thinking she’d heard Chrissy yell out, but it was only a dream. Linda couldn’t go back to sleep. By 9 a.m., she began calling Chrissy, and when she got no answer she raced over to her apartment.

“I saw the picture [in my head] of what I was going to find,” Linda says. When she arrived, Chrissy was barely breathing and was rushed to Flushing Hospital. “She had taken pills,” Linda says sadly.

Doctors told the Rossi’s that she was not going to regain consciousness. Linda’s experience as a hospice nurse melded with her role as a mother and a life-changing decision had to be made.

“I knew Chrissy would never want to live that way,” Linda says. “I had to get her out of [the hospital] and bring her to hospice.”

A few months earlier, Linda had begun working as the team manager of the nursing home division of Hospice Care Network (HCN) in Melville. Linda’s aunt had once been a patient there. After Chrissy had visited her, she later told her mother that HCN was a place where everybody should die because it was so peaceful there.

“I’m a hospice nurse, so [the topic of] death was very open in our house,” Linda says, “it was nothing to be afraid of.”

On July 25th, Chrissy was moved to HCN and with her family at her side, she passed away at the age of 26.

While going through her daughter’s belongings, Linda found more than 150 medical journals and textbooks that contained articles about mental illness which Chrissy had clipped, marked or highlighted. Linda believes that Chrissy was creating her own library to research treatment options for her illness. “She was searching for the true answers for what was happening to her. It was amazing what this kid did,” Linda says.

Linda wanted to continue what her daughter had started because it was her wish to find a cure. And so it became Linda’s mission to find it for her. “It was not a choice. I had to do this,” she says.

A month after Chrissy died, Linda founded Chrissy’s Wish, a non-profit organization to raise funds for mental health research.

Linda called the Mental Health Association in Washington, D.C., which recommended that she contact NARSAD, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, located in Great Neck. Constance Lieber, the president of NARSAD for 18 years, had a daughter Janice, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1980s. NARSAD is committed to alleviating the suffering of mental illness by awarding grants that will lead to advances and breakthroughs in scientific research. NARSAD has awarded almost $300 million worldwide and 100 percent of any monies collected goes directly to research.

In just four years, Chrissy’s Wish has donated more than $200,000 to NARSAD through various fundraising events. Linda selects where the research money will be used from a list of grants that NARSAD is offering.

With Hollywood stars like Catherine Zeta Jones and Demi Lovato publicly acknowledging their struggle with bipolar disorder, Linda is hopeful that mental illness will be viewed in a different light and even more money will be donated for research.

“This is not about Chrissy. I am doing this for the people that are left here who are suffering,” Linda explains. “This is genetic. I look at my children, and it can’t happen again.”

Linda says that after losing a child your life is put into a different perspective.

“Life for me now is what I can do to make this world better.”

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