a Westerleigh Estate Broker endured the loss of her son and a fight with cancer. Now she’s raising awareness so that no one else has to suffer those same losses

by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos BY Amessé Photography

When Fran and Frank Reali lost their oldest son to an undetected heart ailment in 2007, the Westerleigh couple and their entire family were devastated.

“Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent,” Fran Reali said, recalling moments after the loss when both she and her husband were left in a state of utter disbelief. “He was 36, a father of five, completely healthy and in good physical shape. To lose him so suddenly was shocking, but to not fully understand what we lost him to was even worse.”

Reali’s death was attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), one of several heart conditions categorized under Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes. Affecting men and women equally, HCM is characterized by a thickening of the heart muscle, a genetic disorder estimated to affect one in 500 people, leading to cardiac arrest if untreated. That textbook definition was given to the family to explain their loss, but what Fran Reali couldn’t grasp was how the condition had gone undetected.

“At the wake for Frankie, my sisters noticed a swelling in my neck which turned out to be a rare form of lymphoma,” Reali said. “After surgery, I had to have daily radiation treatments for three months and while I was recovering, I used that time to research my son’s condition. I found out through a CNN medical study that 400,000 adults under the age of 40 are affected by sudden cardiac death each year. It was also revealed that baseline testing that included a simple echocardiogram and electrocardiogram would have been able to detect the problem.”

Immediately, Reali wanted to take some sort of action so that no other family would have to suffer such a tragedy. “I met with John Demoleas, associate executive director of Development and External Affairs, Anthony C. Ferreri, Northwell Health executive vice president and chief negotiation officer, and with members of the Staten Island University Hospital board, who graciously listened to a distraught mother who wanted to save the world,” Reali recalled. “They gave their blessing and with their guidance a stronger relationship was formed. Dr. Mike LaCorte jumped on board, too, donating his time and expertise to test children’s hearts. The foundation was born. Frank and I, along with his brothers and Frankie’s family, formed an organization that would provide funds for screening children entering high school. We purchased a portable echocardiogram machine and donated it to the hospital in the foundation’s name.”

Originally named The Frank J. Reali III Foundation, the organization started small and benefitted from a handful of pilot golf outings and other galas as well as from community donations. Today, it has been renamed Protecting One Young Heart At A Time, and has been joined by Richmond University Medical Center and The Kiwanis Organization. The group has tested in excess of 2,500 children to date, and is currently spearheading an initiative to fund testing in both private and public schools.

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“Out of 2,500 children we’ve had tested, 19 percent of them tested positive for the heart ailment,” Reali said. “Once detected, the condition can often be corrected by simple lifestyle changes such as proper food consumption and exercise, but heart surgery may be required, depending upon the severity.”

As a result of the Reali’s involvement and generosity, Staten Island University Hospital has rededicated its children’s heart service, now known as the Frank J. Reali III Pediatric Cardiology Program at Staten Island University Hospital. “We lost Frankie, but his passing saved many parents from similar grief,” Reali said. “Insurance doesn’t cover this one very important test, and it should. We would like to see this mandated as part of the incoming physical every student takes before high school.”

“We’ve had people call us from across the country,” she added. “One gentleman’s son died on a train platform while he was coming home from school. He said he never thought to test his younger daughter for the condition, but when he heard about our foundation, had her tested and found out she had the condition, too. We’ve met kids whose parents had heart problems and because of our work, they were tested only to find those problems were genetic. It’s been amazing what we’ve been able to do and all of the families we’ve been able to help.”

Reali, a Staten Island native and real estate broker, is the owner of Better Homes and Garden Real Estate Safari Realty. She founded the company with her husband Frank in 1988.

“I never thought I would go into real estate, but I took the advice of a friend and started selling homes in 1981,” Reali said. “I immediately took to it, listed seven homes in one month, and sold five of them. There was just something about this business—helping people find the home where they would raise their family—it was the right fit for me.”

One of the borough’s biggest cheerleaders, Reali says it’s Staten Island’s tightly-knit enclaves that make it so charming.

“I grew up in New Brighton, on York Avenue by Jersey Street, and everyone in that area was like family,” she said. “We were poor, different colors, and different nationalities, but we didn’t know or recognize any differences. We were all just neighbors helping neighbors. Everyone on the block knew you. All of the mom-and-pop business owners knew your family. There was a rhythm to that neighborhood. Staten Island is and always has been a wonderful place to live.”

Reali met her husband in New Brighton when she was just 17, and married him two years later in Assumption Church.

“We’re together 49 years, married for 47, and I still get excited when I see him,” Reali said. “Together we have had so many joys, and suffered the ultimate sorrow of losing our son. But we got through it because we have each other.” Last summer, however, the Realis were tested again, when Fran was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was showing a house, tripped on the sidewalk, fell, and fractured my elbow,” she said. “I had surgery and was receiving occupational therapy to get my arm straight again when I noticed some discomfort in my armpit. My doctor sent me for a mammography just to be safe and they detected something. I had a biopsy and discovered it was an infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”

With no family history, Reali was shocked by the diagnosis.

“For years I’ve participated in the cancer walk, donated money to breast cancer awareness, but have never really felt the full impact of breast cancer until I was sitting in the waiting room, shoulder to shoulder with women ranging in age from 20 to 70, all wearing pink hospital gowns waiting for the best possible news they could receive,” Reali said. She underwent 16 hours of surgery and had several other surgical follow-ups and rounds of treatment.

“Throughout the entire situation I met many women who shared their stories with me,” Reali said. “My husband has been my rock, but many others didn’t have the family support I had or the funds to cover what insurance does not. I have always said that the Staten Island Community has been my therapist…always willing to listen and share.”

So, Reali decided to plan a fundraiser for those not as fortunate as she. Throughout the breast cancer journey, she recorded everything via a photo journal, and on October 27, will share those personal moments in a one-woman show, The Fran Reali-ty of Breast Cancer: A Surreal Satire Survival Story, at the St. George Theatre. Tickets range from $45 to $100, with all proceeds benefitting patients of the Florina Rusi Marke Comprehensive Breast Center at Staten Island University Hospital, which offers care and prevention services in a serene setting designed to ease anxiety.

Reali is also planning her son’s annual memorial dinner which raises money for local heart tests. There will also be a golf outing and a large-scale game of musical chairs this spring to raise funds and awareness for the heart initiative.

Protecting One Young Heart at a Time