By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun
1:57 AM EDT, March 19, 2012
Emiline D. Lazzeri, a Baltimore County native who as a child lived for a year in a glass-encased room at Johns Hopkins Hospital while being treated for rheumatic fever, died of congestive heart failure March 14 at her home in Largo, Fla.
She was 80.
Born Emiline Phillips, she grew up across the city line in Baltimore County's Jones Creek neighborhood and graduated from Sparrows Point High School. Her childhood was marked by a rare illness she developed at age 6. In attempts to diagnose the illness, she became a fixture at Baltimore's most famous medical institution for one year and linked to one of its most renowned doctors forever.
Rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can attack the heart, joints and skin, was not widely known or studied in the 1930s, and several doctors were unable to diagnose the young girl's illness, sending her parents searching for answers at Johns Hopkins.
She spent a year isolated in a glass-encased room under the care of renowned Johns Hopkins pediatric cardiologist Helen Brooke Taussig, a pioneer in pediatric cardiology who also conceived of the so-called "Blue Baby" operation to repair heart birth defects in children whose blood was starved of oxygen, a condition that turned their skin a bluish hue, according to The Baltimore Sun's archives.
But after Dr. Taussig diagnosed rheumatic fever, the girl and her family were determined that the disease would not define her life, though she struggled with reoccurring attacks through her early years.
"She's pulled through more things than a cat has nine lives," said her only daughter, Sandra Barkley of Belleair, Fla.
Though doctors said she wouldn't live past 40, Mrs. Lazzeri went on to marry her husband, Edward Lazzeri, a marriage that lasted nearly 60 years. After a swift courtship, mostly done through letters while Mr. Lazzeri was in the Korean War, the couple was married in 1952 at St. Rita Catholic Church, in Dundalk.
Though she was advised against having children, Mrs. Lazzeri went on to have three and stayed at home to raise them in the county's Battle Grove neighborhood, until 1964, when the family left Baltimore for Michigan City, Ind.
Throughout her life, Mrs. Lazzeri maintained a heartfelt respect for Johns Hopkins Hospital. One of her favorite movies was "Something the Lord Made," which recounts the development of blue-baby treatment at Hopkins.
She and her husband loved to travel, particularly sailing along the coast of Michigan. "She always loved her soft-shelled crabs and oysters," Barkley said.
Mrs. Lazzeri's heart was weakened by the rheumatic fever. Family members said people wouldn't have known it, though, but for the two valve replacements she received.
One of Mrs. Lazzeri's sons, Mark Lazzeri of Largo, Fla.,, wrote a poem from the perspective of the St. Jude Mechanical Heart Valve that was placed in his mother 22 years ago, outlining all the activities she was able to engage in during her lifetime.
"I stayed with Emiline through her darkest moments," the poem reads. "She was so strong, like me, we did not give up and together we pulled through many times that seemed bleak. I was so glad that our last heartbeat together was peaceful."
The conviction to live every day to its fullest was instilled in Mrs. Lazzeri by her parents, Ms. Barkley said, who made sure she had a normal childhood, even in the year they watched her through glass at Hopkins, allowed to hug her only at Christmas.
"She never complained her whole life and did what she had to do, even up to the moment she died," Ms. Barkley said, recalling how Mrs. Lazzeri would wake up every day and say: "Hello, Lord. Thank you for another day. I'm so glad to be here."
Ms. Barkley recalled that as her mother prepared to undertake her last fight in the final weeks of her life, she said: "I never want to look back and say I didn't try."
In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Lazzeri is survived by her husband, Edward, of Largo, Fla.; brother Edward Phillips of Oshkosh, Wis.; sister Sweetpea Stemble of Vero Beach, Fla.; another son, Glen Lazzeri of Michiana Shores, Ind.; seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. A private memorial service for family members will be held on Tuesday at Bay Pines National Cemetery in Bay Pines, Fla.
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