Saturday, February 27, 2016

Love and faith are key for Christina Santhouse 20 years after radical brain surgery

Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2016
Twenty years ago, 8-year-old Christina Santhouse woke up in a Maryland hospital and faced her first day with only half a brain.
Vince Paravecchia and wife Christina 
No one knew what the future would hold for the little girl -- only that she would now get the chance to have a future.
During those early weeks, her progress was one day at a time and one step at a time. Literally.
Would the seizures that pounded her body every 10 minutes stop for good? Would she ever be able to walk? Would she be able to dress herself?
Hopes and goals were added as her recovery progressed.
Would she be able to return to Immaculate Conception School in Bristol Township? Could she earn a high school diploma?
Milestones like going to college, having a career and marrying and becoming a mother were low on the family's wish list because the possibilities seemed so remote.
Two decades later, Christina holds bachelor's and master's degrees. She's a speech and language pathologist, working with kids who need extra encouragement to find their voices. And nearly 18 months ago, she added another milestone to the list -- one that came with a new last name.
Christina, who's now 28, married Vince Paravecchia, now 32, following a whirlwind romance that started when they met in a Bible study group.
On the surface, they are complete opposites. She's a blue-eyed blonde; he has dark eyes and brown hair. She's all about routine and structure; he's laid back and spontaneous. She's an only child. He has four siblings. She's usually an hour early for everything; he's consistently 20 minutes late.
But those differences are minor, the couple said. Their strong religious faith and sense of family are what play the biggest part in their love story.
“From the very moment I met Vince, I felt like it was divine intervention,” Christina said. “God led me to the Bible group. He led me to Vince, and he is continuing to lead our lives.”
Christina age 8
But first, she said, God had to save her life.
Scientists don’t know what causes Rasmussen’s encephalitis, the rare inflammatory disease that Christina had. It most frequently occurs in children under age 10, destroying the brain, causing severe seizures, loss of motor skills and speech, paralysis and eventually, death.
Within months after she was diagnosed, Christina experienced more than 100 violent seizures a day. Medications didn’t work. The seizures left her in a wheelchair as she grew weaker.
Christina the day before her brain surgery
There was one option, doctors said: perform an anatomic hemispherectomy, which was the removal of the diseased right half of Christina’s brain.
Lynne Santhouse, a single mom at the time, said she felt there was no choice. She would do anything to save her child.
The 14-hour surgery was performed Feb. 13, 1996, by then pediatric neurosurgeon — and current Republican presidential candidate — Dr. Ben Carson at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore.
The surgery is so risky it’s almost never performed today, said neurologist Dr. Christopher Skidmore, who's Christina's current doctor. Skidmore, a physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, said Christina is the first patient he has seen with an anatomic hemispherectomy.
While long-term medical studies have found the last-resort surgery is successful in stopping or reducing seizures, it does result in permanent changes.
Hemispherectomy patients experience at least partial paralysis. Christina's left arm is paralyzed, she has no peripheral vision in her left eye, and her left leg is partially paralyzed. Because the right side of the brain also controls skills such as problem-solving and communication, Christina experienced speech problems after the surgery.
Years of painful, frustrating physical therapy followed, to retrain her body, help her relearn everyday tasks and rebuild her life. Her family was beside her for every step, stumble and success.
Christina age 13
“I lived for the moment,” Christina's mother said. “When you go through something that tragic, you go day to day.”
Stepfather Albert Catarro, who Christina calls Pops, had dated Lynne for three years when Christina became sick, a situation he said cemented their father-daughter bond.
Saving Christina was the sole focus for him and Lynne and their large extended family, Albert said. They knew the surgery had high risks and unclear expectations, but anything beyond stopping the seizures was an extra blessing, he explained.
But the blessings never stopped. One by one, Christina hit her rehabilitation milestones -- and exceeded many of them.
She went back to school and took up bowling, which she excelled at. After graduating from high school with honors, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. For the last six years, she has worked for the Bucks County Intermediate Unit.
“She did it on her own,” Lynne said. “I do believe if it wasn’t for her personality, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”
Watching Christina never give up is what Albert said inspired him to finish his doctoral degree. “I've learned more from her than I can put into words. I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.
Not long after buying a home in Lower Makefield nearly four years ago, Christina saw a notice in her church’s Sunday bulletin for a weekly young adult Bible study group. She was told that group was disbanding, but she was directed to a thriving group that met weekly at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Newtown Township.
Christina said she was looking to get more involved with the church and expand her circle of friends. She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. Truth is, she wondered if there was a guy out there who loved God as much as she did.
Vince and Christina

Then Vince walked into her first meeting with the St. Andrew group.
Christina was immediately smitten by this man in the brown sweater. She spent the rest of that first meeting casually casting side glances and shy smiles his way.Vince noticed her, too. "I sure did," he said.
But for weeks after Christina joined the Bible study group, the two didn’t even exchange hellos.
Then, one day after she finished work at Lafayette Elementary School in Bristol Township, she walked past the gym. She peeked in and saw Vince, who runs an after-school program there in addition to working with troubled children in Morrisville. Too shy to say hello, Christina kept walking.
A few more weeks passed before they ran into each other in the school hall. This time, they exchanged hellos. Later that night, Christina messaged Vince on Facebook.
The next Monday, Vince encouraged her to join the rest of the Bible study group for a post-meeting powwow and the two ended up sitting next to each other.
Four months later, they went out together for the first time to a performance of “West Side Story” at William Tennent High School.
But this was no ordinary first date. Christina brought her parents, her grandmother, Mary Lou Tantum, and her uncle Joe’s family. After the play, they all had dinner together at a Warminster diner.
At the diner, Christina's grandmother said she realized Vince was someone special to Christina because of the attention he paid to the entire family as well as to her granddaughter. He even pulled the paper wrapper off Christina’s straw for her, Mary Lou recalled.
“He was that thoughtful," she said, adding that she thought at the time: "This is the real deal."
Christina and Vince on their Wedding Day
The rest of the courtship was sonic quick. Christina and Vince went from strangers, to friends, to dating, to engaged, and then married within 19 months.
The speed surprised her mom. “I didn’t think anyone else could take care of her. I didn’t think she could do it without me,” Lynne said.
It wasn’t until months of knowing each other that Vince learned Christina was missing half her brain. He said he had no clue there was anything physically different about her.
“I seriously never noticed. I think that’s because it doesn’t define her to me,” Vince said, adding that he's glad Christina is the one who told him everything about the surgery and her recovery.
“It enhanced our love story,” Vince added. “Throughout my life, I never felt totally complete. Now I do. I think that whole mantra 'your wife is your better half' is true.”
Every once in a while, he'll try to zip his jacket one-handed to get an idea what Christina goes through every day because of her paralysis.
“I usually give up after a couple seconds,” he said. “I don’t know how she does it, quite frankly. It’s crazy. I’ll never understand how she does that. I’ll never understand how she does half the stuff she does with one hand.”
Christina’s neurologist said she's not only healthy for an adult hemispherectomy patient, but for any woman her age.
“She is on the far end of the 'doing amazing' scale,” he said. “She is doing outstanding. If you were ever to trying to convince a family considering the surgery it would almost be unfair to show Christina, because she has done so well.”
What's next for Christina? She'd like to have a baby.
“We’ll see if God blesses us, but for now, we’re just incredibly happy with our life together,” Christina said.
Christina is devoted to St.Theresa
She and Vince said they're not worried about passing on Rasmussen’s encephalitis to the children they pray they’ll have together.
It’s an incredibly rare illness and it’s not hereditary. But if God gives them a child with special needs, so be it, the couple said.
“We’ll just love them unconditionally. Be their 'encourager' and support system until they can find their own wings, just like my mom did for me," Christina said.
“I feel the same way,” Vince added. “I don’t worry about that at all. We’ll deal.”
Twenty years after her surgery, Christina believes her illness was a blessing. She isn’t sure she'd be as compassionate and empathetic otherwise.
And while she doesn't know if people still think of her as the girl with half a brain, Christina believes what other people think isn't important. It's what she thinks about herself that matters.
“My life has surpassed all my wildest dreams. There are just blessings that are poured into my life and I would never trade my life for anything else,” she said. “I have an amazing life that is not defined by my brain.”

Son of late sheriff deputy Tom French wants estate administrator appointed for probate process

Posted: Monday, February 22, 2016 5:00 pm

Thomas French Jr. (L)  Thomas French

The son of a retired Bucks County sheriff's deputy who is contesting his father's will wants the court to appoint a third party to oversee the estate after he said some of its assets have been sold.
Montgomery County attorney Karl Prior has filed a petition in Bucks County's Orphan's Court to appoint an administrator for the estate of Thomas J. French, formerly of Buckingham.
“This estate is a ship without a rudder right now," Prior said Friday. "There is no administrator. There is no executor. There is no one who has authority to act on (French’s) estate.”
Thomas J. French, 64, committed suicide in February 2015. He took his life two weeks after the Pennsylvania attorney general filed charges against him, his wife, Claire Risoldi, of Buckingham; her son and daughter-in-law, Carl A. and Sheila Risoldi, both of Buckingham; and her daughter, Carla V. Risoldi, of Solebury, for allegedly participating in a $20 million insurance fraud and related crimes involving fires at the family’s Buckingham estate, Clairemont. Claire Risoldi’s trial is scheduled for June, which will be followed by a second trial for the remaining defendants.
The dispute over French's will began after Claire Risoldi filed a petition with the Bucks County Orphan's Court asking it to accept what was identified as a photocopy of her late husband's will because she believes the will was destroyed in an October 2013 fire at their home.
Her petition states French gave her son photocopies of important documents, including his will. The photocopy, which Claire Risoldi submitted to the court, names her as his sole heir and executor and her son as the alternate executor. French's son, Thomas Jr., isn't mentioned in the will.
French Jr., the only child of Risoldi's late husband, filed a petition challenging the photocopied will, calling it "fraudulent and a forgery.”
An outside administrative court judge is assigned to hear the probate case after the Bucks County Orphan’s Court staff recused themselves, citing potential conflicts. Probate, the legal process to administer and distribute a dead person's estate under certain circumstances, has remained in a holding pattern following several court-approved continuances at Claire Risoldi's request. 
Calkins Media was unsuccessful in reaching attorneys for Claire Risoldi and Carl A. Risoldi for comment Friday on the petition for an outside administrator.
Carl A. Risoldi and the late Thomas French jointly own a Morrisville home that has been put up for sale. Prior's petition also states other assets have been sold, including vehicles owned by Thomas French. 
Under Pennsylvania law, only an executor has the authority to act on behalf of the estate of a deceased person, according to Lisa Gaier, an estate attorney with the Bucks County Bar Association’s Orphan’s Court section. An executor can be named in a will or, if a person dies without a will, a judge appoints one. Until the Orphan's Court accepts a will for probate, no one has the authority to sell estate assets, Gaier added. 
If estate assets are improperly sold or liquidated, the court could order that the fair-market value of the items be reimbursed to the estate for distribution, Gaier said.

Records: Risoldis, Morris failed to pay 2015 property taxes on homes

Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2016

More than $51,000 in real estate taxes is owed on five properties that county records say are owned by -- or state officials say are associated with -- a prominent Bucks County family awaiting trial in a $20 million insurance fraud case.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office obtained temporary restraining orders last year under the civil asset forfeiture law for four properties that it believes are directly or indirectly owned by the Risoldi family. The state obtained the order since the properties could be sold for restitution if members of the Risoldi family are convicted in trials involving alleged fraud stemming from insurance claims related to fires at the family’s Buckingham estate, Clairemont.

The estate has been the setting for Republican fundraisers that brought matriarch Claire Risoldi and her adult children prominence in local political and social circles.
The restraining order legally prohibits the owners from selling, mortgaging or otherwise altering the properties, which the state estimates are collectively worth an estimated $3 million. The state estimates the potential restitution to insurer AIG could be more than $15 million, according to court documents.
4800 Bl Danielle Drice
The restraining order is against Clairemont and three properties on Danielle Drive in Buckingham. They include two owned by Karl Morris but occupied by Claire Risoldi and her son Carl A. Risoldi and his family, according to the attorney general's office. Morris isn't facing charges in the fraud case.
The attorney general's office alleges in court documents that Claire Risoldi gave Morris, a Lower Makefield resident who's a friend of Carl A. Risoldi, the money to buy two homes, in the 4800 and 4900 blocks of Danielle Drive. The documents don't specify why the state believes Risoldi had Morris use Claire Risoldi's money to buy the properties.
In court documents, the state attorney general alleges AIG paid more than $600,000 for additional living expenses to the Risoldis after they “falsely led them (AIG) to believe” that most of the money the insurer provided for living expenses was used to rent two homes for the Risoldis while Clairemont was under reconstruction following the most recent fire, in 2013.
The state has accused Claire Risoldi, 68, son Carl, 44, daughter Carla, 49, Carl’s wife, Sheila, 44, with falsifying and inflating the value of items lost or damaged in an Oct. 22, 2013, fire at the family's Clairemont estate. Claire Risoldi also is accused of engaging in fraud related to previous insurance claims and faces charges of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice in the fraud case.
4900 Bl Danielle Drive
Through their attorneys, the family has consistently denied any wrongdoing in the state’s fraud case. The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching attorneys representing the Risoldis to discuss the delinquent taxes.
Jake Griffin, the attorney representing Morris, declined comment. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office declined comment on the properties' delinquent taxes.
County and court records show the following tax delinquencies on the four homes with restraining orders:
  • Carl and Carla Risoldi owe $19,248.05 on Clairemont, in the 5700 block of Stony Hill Road.
  • A total of $7,512.14 is owed on a house in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive that was purchased by Gemini Capital Limited Group LLC in September 2014. Settlement documents show Carl A. Risoldi bought the property, according to the AG’s office.
  • Morris owes taxes of $8,753.02 on another home in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive.
  • Morris owes taxes of $9,719.05 on a home in the 4900 block of Danielle Drive.
    4800 Bl Danielle Drive
The only one not covered by the AG's restraining order is a home in the 400 block of Prospect Street in Morrisville. Carl Risoldi owes $5,919.45 on that, which he co-owned with the late Thomas French, who was Claire Risoldi’s second husband.
AG spokesman Jeffery Johnson said his office’s interpretation of the seizure law is that the property owner remains responsible for taxes and maintenance on a seized property until the forfeiture process and appeals are exhausted.
Between 8,000 and 9,000 property owners a year -- about 10 percent of the county’s property owners -- fail to pay their property taxes on time each year, according Marguerite Genesio, director of the Bucks County Tax Claim Bureau. The bureau collects delinquent real estate taxes and eventually sells the properties of tax delinquents, with the proceeds going to county government.
In April, the bureau mails formal notification of property liens to delinquent owners, Genesio said. Owners have as long as 18 months to pay their delinquent taxes in full, plus interest and fees, she said. That means owners who failed to pay taxes in 2015 have until June 30, 2017, to pay, unless the owner continues to make timely payments based on an agreement with the county. If the taxes aren't fully paid or the owner doesn't comply with the agreement, the county initiates the tax lien sale process.
North  Prospect Ave. Morrisville
In the meantime, the government can take steps to preserve the property if the owner doesn’t maintain it and there is a “substantial probability” the government will prevail in a civil forfeiture action, according to University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Louis Rulli, director of clinical programs there. Those steps could include a contempt of court charge or appointing a custodian to preserve the property, he said.
“In short, the government is not powerless to act if the restraining order is simply not enough to protect and preserve the property that is subject to forfeiture,” Rulli said.

Judge declined to revoke Risoldi bail; revises decision on separate trials

Posted: Monday, February 8, 2016 

Claire Risoldi (C) Carla Risoldi (R)

A judge on Monday declined to revoke bail for a Buckingham socialite after she reportedly defied his directive and contacted a fourth potential witness in her upcoming $20 million fraud trial.
“Fortunately for her, I am a patient man,” Chester County Senior Judge Thomas Gavin said, before warning Claire Risoldi that any further contacting of witnesses “by any means” would result in a contempt of court charge. Gavin is overseeing the Risoldi trial after all Bucks County judges recused themselves due to possible conflicts of interest.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office filed a motion seeking to revoke the $100,000 bail for the 68-year-old Buckingham woman, saying she once again contacted a potential prosecution witness, eight weeks after Gavin warned her to discontinue her “self-help practices.”
The decision was the second time that prosecutors sought to have Risoldi’s bail revoked for contacting a potential witness, court records show. Prosecutor Matt Connolly argued that after the third time, which resulted in witness intimidation charges for Risoldi, the judge had warned her attorney, Jack McMahon, to make sure his client understood she should discontinue contacting potential witnesses associated with the fraud case.
But she didn't, the attorney general alleged. On Jan. 26, just six days after the AG's Office sent McMahon a report documenting its contact with Sharon Greenberg, Risoldi called the woman, who is the sister of a late jewelry appraiser who purportedly completed "numerous" appraisals for Risoldi. The appraisals were then submitted to AIG for items Risoldi was adding to her insurance policy, the AG's Office said.
Greenberg told state investigators that Risoldi called and asked what she told the AG, claimed Risoldi had a close relationship with Greenberg's late brother, Steven, and apologized for “putting (Greenberg) through this,” referring to the questioning by the AG's Office, according to court documents.
Sharon Greenberg, who reported the contact to the AG the next day, told investigators she had spoken to Risoldi only three times over seven years.
“This was after you specifically warned her counsel” against contacting witnesses, Connolly told the judge.
But Gavin countered that while the contact may have violated the spirit of his directive — potentially placing Risoldi at risk of a contempt of court charge — he didn’t see how the call “crossed the line.” He also asked what role Greenberg would play for prosecutors in the fraud case.
Whether Greenberg is called as a star witness is irrelevant, Connolly countered, adding that the contact represented Risoldi’s continued attempt to manipulate witnesses in the case. He added that Greenberg found the call unsettling, especially since Risoldi called her at home.
“What other reason is she calling? You have to look into the context of the whole case,” Connolly added. “Why is she calling and talking about a relationship with her dead brother?”
But McMahon countered that his client’s call to Greenberg was not connected with his office getting the AG’s report and that he was out of town when the material arrived. He added that Greenberg has “nothing to do with this case” and if Risoldi’s contact was so egregious why wasn’t she charged with witness intimidation this time.
“What occurred with her was an innocent conversation,” McMahon added.
The state has accused Claire Risoldi, her son, Carl, 44; daughter, Carla, 49; Carl’s wife, Sheila, 44 with falsifying and inflating the value of items lost or damaged in an Oct. 22, 2013, fire at Clairemont, the family’s Buckingham estate. Claire Risoldi also is accused of engaging in fraud related to previous insurance claims starting in 1984 and separate charges of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice for allegedly attempting to persuade another jewelry appraiser to affirm he signed appraisals for her in 1983 that are evidence in the fraud case. The man, now retired, has testified that he never did appraisals for Claire Risoldi.
In a separate pre-trial motion Monday Gavin modified his earlier decision to separate the trials for Claire Risoldi and the other defendants based on the date of alleged criminal conduct. Instead, Gavin ordered that Claire Risoldi will be tried alone and first for all the charges against her, and the remaining defendants will be tried later.
The earlier decision meant that Claire Risoldi would have had two trials — one with her children in connection with alleged crimes related the 2013 fire at Clairemont and another trial for alleged criminal conduct between 1984 and 2013.
The Risoldi children and daughter-in-law had originally requested the judge separate their trial from Claire Risoldi's, arguing that being tried with a co-defendant “who is alleged to have engaged in insurance fraud for 29 years” would be prejudicial, according to court documents.
Since their arrests, the defendants have steadfastly denied wrongdoing through their attorneys.