How my guidance counselor taught me to embrace myself and CF

His words remind me that my life with cystic fibrosis is worth living

William Ryan avatar

by William Ryan |

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Note: This column includes thoughts about suicide. Resources for help are listed at the end.

The Los Angeles Dodgers weren’t always based in sunny LA. Formerly the Brooklyn Dodgers, and affectionately known as “Dem Bums,” the team was beloved by all in the New York borough, including my grandmother Frances, who died before I was born. She left Brooklyn in the ’40s for Jersey City, New Jersey, but still rooted for her hometown team. They were also beloved by a then young man, Tony Azzarto, who was in high school when they won their only World Series in Brooklyn. He still loved them even when they moved to California.

The Rev. Tony Azzarto was my high school guidance counselor and the subject of one of my earlier columns. He passed away on April 15 at age 84.

In that column, I told the story of when he visited me in the hospital while I was struggling with cystic fibrosis (CF) and diabetes. I was barely a week into my freshman year, so his visit meant a lot to me.

But a later gesture of his meant even more, as we knew each other better by that time.

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It took place during my junior year retreat, known as Emmaus. It’s since become the senior year retreat for students at Saint Peter’s Prep, but for over 30 years, it served as the junior one. Before that event, I was struggling.

I was struggling in class and struggling to maintain friendships. I was struggling to grasp who I was.

I had people telling me I should end my life. They asked, what was the point of living if I were going to die young? What’s the point if CF was going to cut my life short anyway?

I had a hard time loving myself because I felt that I wasn’t worthy of it. Living with CF made me think I had too many faults to be loved. I slacked off on taking physical care of myself. I was still young enough that I could burn myself out and be OK the next day, but it’s not fruitful to do that day in and day out. I also thought the people who were saying I shouldn’t live anymore made some sense. CF, at some point, would more than likely be my end, so what was the point?

All of my friends, if I had any, were at a different local high school, so I wanted to transfer. Plus, I thought I might have an easier time passing classes if I did.

As part of the retreat, attendees receive letters of love, support, and affirmation from parents, family members, and other students who’d gone on the retreat. I was overwhelmed by the love I felt reading them. Afterward, we all gathered in a room for a prayer service.

Lo and behold, there was Father Azzarto, who’d traveled all the way to the woods of northern New Jersey just to lead the prayer. I’m sure he could’ve been doing something better on that Sunday night, but he was there for us. And me. He sat next to me and saw that I was struggling to stop crying. I’ll never forget what he said to me.

“It’s OK. You are so loved, and people really do care about you. You can start loving yourself. It’s OK to love yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” He hugged me and left his arm on my shoulder.

It opened my eyes and heart. It made me want to manage my health and studies and to value my life just as much as my loved ones did. In the following months, I began getting my health back on track before it could get worse. I took CF more seriously than I had been by making sure I was taking my medicine properly. I even saw a therapist for about five months to work out some inner teen angst I had.

After I graduated, Father Azzarto and I kept in contact with letters and photos, and we’d occasionally bump into each other at events. I shared with him the column I wrote about him, and he wrote me a compliment in response, saying he greatly appreciated it.

His obituary on the school’s website emphasizes his message that we see the good in everyone. My grandmother from Brooklyn, according to my parents, preached the same message. Spreading love is the Brooklyn way, right?

I appreciated him more than he could ever understand. I’ll always love him. One day, we’ll talk baseball again. Thank you, Father Azzarto, for everything.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. (988, or, available 24/7) or Samaritans in the U.K. (

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Anthony M Palmiero avatar

Anthony M Palmiero

Heart warming story.Love you Will.

Monica Coles avatar

Monica Coles

I am so very proud of you Ryan, through all you have persevered! I will always be “Team Ryan”! Your article was beautifully worded and very touching. I am truly saddened to hear that some people encouraged you to end your life. I am grateful, however, you chose not to. You have much to offer, and many who love you. I am honored to have been part of your journey in life. The world is a much better place with you in it.

Gisele F Lapointe avatar

Gisele F Lapointe

Thank you for sharing your story. I bet you're loved more than you'll ever know. Take good care, and keep writing.

Helen Palmiero avatar

Helen Palmiero

Will - What a poignant article (even though laced with your wonderful sense of humor)! Did it ever tug on my heartstrings!!! I had no idea. I am sooo glad for your Heaven-sent Father Azzarto. Kids - and adults - can be so thoughtless and cruel. You were always and are now loved more than you'll ever know. Stay strong, keep up with whatever needs to be done medically and remember Father Azzarto's inspiration whenever things may get difficult. You are one of MY inspirations. Lots of Love, Helen

Rob Coholan avatar

Rob Coholan

Hi Will, thank you for your inspiring thoughts. Keep up the good work !


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