‘All about living, not dying’

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As a field radio operator who pinpointed enemy targets in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, Richard Rizzio Sr. experienced four close calls.

They’re etched in his mind—his four lucky breaks.

At 93, Rizzio talks freely about his experiences pushing across France, Belgium and Germany with the 274th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. His narrative includes tales from the Battle of the Bulge.

Perhaps his biggest break came on his very first day of combat, in 1944. Driving up a hill in northern France, his outfit came under fire. He and his commanding officers sprung from their Jeeps and hit the ground.

“My captain said, ‘Duck! Duck, Rizzio,’” he said. “A piece of shrapnel … went right across my knuckles. If I hadn’t ducked—”

His son Richard Rizzio Jr. picked up the story: “It would have gone right through his head.”

Though blood streamed down his arm, he fought on, helping his unit target and knock out three enemy howitzers. He earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart that day, at age 20.

“They saved hundreds of lives,” his son Ken Rizzio said.

Focus on living

Decades after that indelible brush with death, Rizzio is coming to terms with his mortality once again.

Diagnosed first with Parkinson’s disease and more recently with inoperable bile duct cancer, the Holland, Michigan, resident signed on as a patient of Spectrum Health Hospice.

“I knew I had to have help,” he said. “At 93, what are you gonna do?”

Rizzio, who still walks without assistance, now receives weekly visits in his apartment from a hospice nurse case manager, a massage therapist, and a social worker, who work as a team to treat his symptoms and manage his pain. In time, as his needs increase, team members will step up their care.

Knowing his tumor can’t be treated but still feeling well enough to travel, Rizzio has opted to make the most of the time he has left.

And over the summer, that meant one thing—catching fish.

“Fishing has always been my favorite sport,” Rizzio said. It’s one of the main things that drew him from his native Chicago to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after the war.

“I did not want to raise my children in the city, and I was fortunate that my wife felt the same,” said the father of four.

Troy Clink, MSW, is Rizzio’s hospice social worker. As soon as he got to know the patient and family, Clink knew none of them would be content letting this avid outdoorsman sit on the sidelines.

“A lot of the time when people sign up for hospice, they feel like, OK, you just stay home now and that’s kind of it,” Clink said.

“What people don’t realize is hospice is all about living, not dying.”

When he suggested the sons take their father on a fishing trip, they were delighted.

“I was relieved,” Rizzio Jr. said. “Relieved that life wasn’t over and that his whole way—our whole family life—was no longer on hold.

“We could continue doing the things that we’ve been used to doing. We’ve been hunting, fishing and camping since we were little.”

The idea took hold, and the elder Rizzio soon learned he qualified for fishing excursions sponsored by a nonprofit organization that provides recreational opportunities for wounded veterans.

In May, he and his three sons fished for walleye on South Manistique Lake in the Upper Peninsula.

In August, he participated in a muskie fishing tournament on Lake St. Clair near Detroit—and caught one of the biggest fish of the day.

In September, Rizzio felt well enough to return to northern Michigan for what he suspects may be his last fishing trip.

Before each trip, Clink put the family in touch with hospice services in the areas where they traveled—“just in case he ran into trouble.” He never did, but it felt good to have a safety net.

Thirst for adventure

For a man who’s always lived for adventure, it’s a fitting way to spend his last chapter.

“We had a ball growing up,” Rizzio Jr. said. “As kids we never knew what he was going to be up to. He’s like a big kid himself.”

Even talking about his war experiences, Rizzio Sr. downplays the trauma and highlights the positive.

“Going into the service to me was an adventure,” he said. “My injuries were so minor, and I was so lucky. … I can’t complain about what I went through.”

After his last fishing adventure, Rizzio turned his attention to resting up. That’s because he has one more goal in mind: a trip to his old stomping grounds during deer hunting season.

“My son Mike has a deer camp up northwest of Marquette, so if I’m feeling all right—” he broke off, smiling. “I have everything in my blind but a Barcalounger.”

More time together. It’s a dream the family is holding out hope for, and Rizzio’s hospice team stands ready to provide support.

“Richard and his sons are just amazing together,” said Clink, “and we’re along for the ride. If they say, ‘This is what we want to do,’ we just try to help.”

Rizzio, who knows the hospice experience looks different for each patient, appreciates this flexible approach.

“They’re doing all kinds of good things for me,” he said. “Every one of them is a gem.”

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