A paralyzed Bath Beach teenager whose meeting with Pope Francis at Kennedy Airport in 2015 touched the hearts of New Yorkers has discovered a new sense of freedom thanks to a wheelchair lift that was recently installed in her family’s home.
Julia Bruzzese, a Xaverian High School sophomore, got the chance to personally thank state Sen. Martin Golden who had stepped in to help her parents, Enrico and Josephine Bruzzese, win approval from the government to have Medicaid pay for the wheelchair lift.
Julia suffers from Lyme disease and is wheelchair-bound.
Golden (R-Bay Ridge-Southwest Brooklyn) visited the Bruzzeses’ Bay 17th Street house on July 11 to get his first look at the new wheelchair lift and to chat with Julia and her family.
The wheelchair lift, which was installed in the back of the house, has dramatically improved her life, Julia said. “It changed my life in a big way. I feel free,” she said.
“This will be a big help to you and your family,” Golden told her.
Before the lift was installed, Julia was largely confined to her home, according to her father. “She was a captive in the house,” he told this newspaper.
Friends would often come by to visit her and she enjoyed the visits. “But if they made a spur of the moment decision to go someplace, Julia couldn’t go with them. When she did go out, it took planning to get the wheelchair out of the house,” Enrico said.
The loving dad would literally carry Julia over his shoulder to put her in the car to go to school and to doctor’s appointments.
Now, Julia is free to get out of the house to go back and forth to wherever she likes.
Enrico and Josephine Bruzzese struggled for nearly three years to win approval for Julia’s wheelchair lift. They would not have been able to afford the device on their own because it costs thousands of dollars, Enrico said. He and his wife are grateful for Golden’s help, he said.
The Bruzzeses are a close-knit family. Julia has a sister, Sofia, and two brothers, James and Adam, all of whom help care for her.
Julia has made the most of her newfound freedom.
An artist, she volunteers at a Park Slope recreational center a couple of times a week teaching children how to paint. “It was one of the first things she did after the wheelchair lift came,” her father said.
She also attends numerous fundraisers for various charities.
“You’re all over the place!” a clearly impressed Golden told her. “It’s good to see you at so many events.”
Julia, who celebrated her 15th birthday this week, said she wants to be a doctor. “I want to help people with this disease,” she said.
She is also considering starting a foundation to advocate for research into a cure for Lyme disease and to help young people with the illness.
Lyme disease is a life-threatening infection that is usually transmitted to humans through a deer tick bite. If left untreated, the infection spreads quickly throughout the body and can affect the joints and organs.
The devastating illness is on the rise in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A government study found that cases of Lyme disease increased more than 80 percent between 2004 and 2016. The CDC estimates that 300,000 people in the U.S. are living with Lyme disease.
Julia, a young woman of strong Catholic faith, said she believes she was the recipient of a miracle three years ago when Pope Francis paid a historic visit to New York City.
Seated in her wheelchair, Julia was part of a crowd of well-wishers greeting the pope when he landed at the airport. The Pontiff spotted her in the crowd, walked over to her and blessed her. She was 12 years old and a student at Saint Bernadette Catholic School at the time.
Up until that point, Julia’s illness was a complete medical mystery. She had been a perfectly healthy adolescent, but was suddenly been struck by a strange illness in 2015 that rendered her unable to walk. Doctors could not figure out why she had become so sick so fast.
A short time after the pope’s blessing, Julia was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Her illness was no longer a mystery. The news enabled her to begin treatments.