By Katherine Long | Editor
Laurie Mezzalingua had an epiphany on a mountain at Lourdes.
She had previously visited the French Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes as a volunteer, but this time Laurie was making a pilgrimage to the holy site as a malade, a person with an illness. She was in the midst of what would be a 12-year battle with breast cancer.
Despite terrible pain in her hip and a warning from her doctor, Laurie had insisted on walking the Stations of the Cross, situated on a steep, rocky hill. “She was very feisty about it,” said her mother, Kathleen, a member of the Order of Malta who walked the stations with her.
When they’d completed the strenuous devotion and made it down the mountain, Kathleen remembers Laurie telling her, “I came here for healing, for physical healing…. I realized: it does not matter what happens to my body — my heart has been healed.”
That grit and grace fueled Laurie to not only fight her own disease, but also to help other women do the same. Later this month the Saint Agatha Foundation, founded by Laurie in 2004, will celebrate 10 years of carrying on Laurie’s legacy.
Laurie was the third of six children in the Mezzalingua family, a ball of energy who was full of personality, Kathleen recalled. She lived on the edge and pushed the envelope, her mother said, and “she was always fun.” She was also close to her family and “very, very spiritual.”
Laurie’s life changed in 1997, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 29 years old.
“The breast cancer world became her world,” Kathleen said.
Laurie shifted her life from focusing on her career — she had worked in book publishing as an editor’s assistant at Random House in New York City before returning to Syracuse to work for PPC, her family’s manufacturing business — to immersing herself in the world of treatments and survivors, Kathleen recalled.
Over the years, Laurie’s work to support breast cancer patients included two years of service as president of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, service on the foundation’s board for six years, and chairing its Race for the Cure event twice. She earned the foundation’s Outstanding Volunteer Award in 2005, the same year she was named Citizen of the Year by Syracuse’s Temple Adath Yeshurun.
It was through her treatments and her work that Laurie saw not everyone had the financial advantages she did when it came to care. She met women fighting the disease who didn’t have comprehensive insurance, who struggled to manage copays, who couldn’t go to appointments because they couldn’t afford a babysitter or the parking fees, Kathleen explained. “She said, ‘Why me?’ And that was what led her to establish a fund to help women.”
Laurie named her foundation for St. Agatha, the patron saint of those with breast disease. Under Laurie’s direction the Saint Agatha Foundation dispersed more than $2 million, funds that helped women in need pay for treatments and pay the mortgage.
“She said, I just want women to concentrate on getting well and focusing on their healing without worrying about ‘Who’s going to take care of my family? Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage?’” Kathleen said.
With strong faith and determination, Laurie fought her disease and its metastases for 12 years. She died July 4, 2009 — a fitting date, her mother noted, because Laurie loved a party. The family celebrates Laurie’s life each year on the Fourth of July.
Laurie provided for Saint Agatha after her death, and her spirit lives on through the foundation’s efforts. At Laurie’s request, Kathleen now oversees the foundation with its board of directors. Over the last decade, the foundation has provided financial assistance to more than 6,500 breast cancer patients by providing grants in excess of $11 million to local hospitals and partner organizations, according to materials from the foundation.
Jo Anne Furcinito and her mother, Charlotte Furcinito-Battes, were both assisted with medical bills by Saint Agatha when each was fighting breast cancer. “This foundation is like no other foundation,” said Jo Anne, a nurse practitioner from North Syracuse who is a cousin of Kathleen’s. “They don’t just consider the patient, they consider everything else in the life of that patient.” She pointed to beds purchased, child care services provided, and homes saved for other patients. “It’s not just about your bills. They’re there for more than that,” Jo Anne added.
Breast cancer patients in need typically are connected with Saint Agatha through the breast cancer navigator at their hospital, Kathleen explained. The foundation provides assistance to the patients through grants made directly to the patient’s hospital.
The foundation currently partners with hospitals and healthcare providers across six Central New York counties and is looking to expand, particularly to areas outside of cities, Kathleen said.
“We just want the word out, to help as many women as we can. Nobody should have to suffer these costs,” she said.
As Saint Agatha marks a decade of carrying on Laurie’s legacy, Kathleen says her daughter “would be thrilled, I think, to see what has happened with her foundation.”
“I know she’s watching over us,” Kathleen added.
The Saint Agatha Foundation will host its “The Promise Continues” gala, celebrating 10 years of carrying on founder Laurie Mezzalingua’s legacy, on Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown. Visit saintagathafoundation.org to learn more about the foundation and to purchase tickets to the gala.