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  • Sarah Waara

Unthinkable tragedy and extraordinary recovery

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Frankie Ridolfi experienced tragedy. In the aftermath, he did everything he should — occupational therapy, physical therapy and listening to all of his providers’ recommendations. But what made a true difference more than the physical component of healing was that Frankie allowed himself to feel the wide array of emotions and feelings.

“I just felt all of my feelings. When I got scared, I would say ‘I’m feeling really scared,’ and would tell somebody. When I felt joy, I let myself feel the joy,” Frankie said. “Music helped me too. I would put on whatever I was in the mood for, get up and look out at Lake Michigan, and I would dance.”

Being able to dance in his hospital room at Ascension Columbia St Mary’s — Milwaukee campus was no simple feat. Just a few weeks earlier, Frankie was in a coma after his father’s house exploded due to a natural gas leak. Roughly 82% of his body was burned, 75% of which were third-degree. He couldn’t talk, was unable to stand unsupported and he didn’t have feeling in his dominant arm.

The physical and mental healing after recovering from the explosion wasn’t a solo effort. Frankie received care from providers at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center and Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Hospital. That care, said Frankie, was unlike any other.

“What mattered a lot was all of the wonderful people at Ascension — the nurses, the doctors, everybody was so positive and I really felt it,” Frankie said. “The nature of the care I received was just so positive, kind, personable and encouraging. Dr. Nicholas Meyer (Medical Director, Regional Burn Center) paid attention to me and was careful not to limit my perceptions about what I thought was possible in my recovery.”

Recovery wasn’t easy. Frankie felt frustration, conflict, grief and sadness. Before the accident, he was at his peak — flying his seaplane across the country through smoky skies, mountains and canyons. After the accident, he struggled to do the simple things in life. He couldn’t open a bag of chips, he couldn’t stand up and he couldn’t dance.

But in those trying times, he still felt joy.

“I gave myself the license to feel everything and acknowledge it,” Frankie said. “I let all of my emotions flow. My heart could handle feeling sadness and joy at the same time. Feeling all of my emotions was a pathway of coping with the downsides and using the positive energy to keep me going.”

Frankie’s significant other, Noa, brought out the best in him during recovery. When he was feeling agitated or uncomfortable, her presence dramatically decreased his heart rate and blood pressure. When Frankie was on day 5 of being in a coma, Noa played the Top Gun opening theme for him, and tears ran down his cheeks. It was her love, combined with the extraordinary efforts of his care team, that helped him recover from the tragedy.

Finally, after three months in the hospital, Frankie made his way home to California with Noa and her daughter Gracie. The recovery process isn't complete and there are still hurdles to overcome but most importantly, Frankie feels better than he ever has.

“I feel terrific,” he said. “I’m feeling really good and mentally, I’m as sharp as ever. I can make

a fist and I can use my dominant hand again after not being able to do that for nine months.”

“If something can be done, then I’m going to go do it. I’m going to do the thing.”

Frankie received care at both Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center and Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Hospital. Generous donors have provided over $1,681,000 of combined support to Ascension Wisconsin Foundation for these areas of care. When you make a gift to Ascension Wisconsin Foundation, you too play a key role in supporting these life-saving services for patients like Frankie.


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