Mysterious ailments upend once-active teen's life

Family struggles to pay ever-mounting medical tab

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  • Matt Rizza, 18, shown with his parents, Jeannie and Dennis, has been suffering from numerous medical woes since being diagnosed with a tick-borne ailment.

By Ginny Privitar

Matt Rizza will be 19 in November, but is so ill, he doesn't feel he has much to celebrate.

The West Milford teen is 5-foot-10 and weighs only 127 pounds.

His parents, Jeannie and Dennis, both work, but are trying to sell their house to pay the many medical bills not covered by insurance.

A "GoFundMe" page has been set up to defray expensive treatments. So far $12,525 of $20,000 goal has been raised, according to the site.

Although Matt had had the occasional stomach issue, he was a normal kid who enjoyed baseball and hiking. He remembers going on hikes and plucking ticks off his skin when he got home. One time, he said, he picked off more than two dozen of the small arachnids.

One of them delivered a devastating blow: infection with Babesia, a parasite that also infests ticks, is difficult to diagnose and can have many debilitating effects.

Matt now receives Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN). He is fed intravenously through a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC or PIC line).

This bypasses the usual process of eating and digestion.

He receives a nutritional formula that contains nutrients such as glucose, salts, amino acids, lipids, vitamins and minerals.

His parents said that the Babesia virus may have attacked Matt's vagus nerve, causing gastro-paresis; the muscles in his small intestines are partially paralyzed and he suffers from malabsorption of nutrients. He also has widespread food intolerances which cause nausea and vomiting. Doctors now want to give his stomach a break from the process of digestion for the next few weeks so it can have a chance to heal.

He is still undergoing many tests.

"We know he had Babesia, but we not sure that that was root cause of his medical problems," his mother said.

He also suffers from weakness and breathing difficulties.

This past spring, Matt seemed to be doing a little better and the family thought he would be able to tolerate antibiotics again to kill the infection, but they only made him much sicker. He couldn't move, walk or breathe without difficulty. This went on for a month and his mother said putting him back on antibiotics "was the biggest mistake."

At the time, his parents said, they didn't realize that he had a genetic problem that made it difficult for his body to detox from common contaminants in food and the environment. Since then, he's been diagnosed with possible biotoxin illness, also known as Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, which means he's basically allergic to everything, his mother said.

In 2015, his younger brother Steven, now 16, tested positive for Lyme disease.

Matt was tested too, and found to be positive for Babesia. About a year later, his mother said, "he went to bed one night and woke up and couldn’t breathe."

Matt had heartburn and gastro esophageal reflux disease and brain fog, she said.

He was more or less okay until senior year when his condition worsened. However, while Matt managed to graduate from West Milford High School in June, he has been unable to get on with his life.

"Everything is so expensive," Jeannie said. Most of the specialists and treatments are not covered by insurance and the family must pay out-of-pocket.

"I wish it was something regular docs recognized," Matt's mother Jeannie said. "You need to see a specialist. You wouldn't believe how many people are waiting to get in to see an integrated medicine specialist."

"Matt can do nothing; he just goes for a walk," Jeannie said. He's suffering all the time."

"It's been emotional," said Matt. "I have a lot of emotions pent up inside."

The teen said he is dismayed by the number of doctors who don't recognize the consequences of tick-borne disease. "People are not treated properly," he said. "They suffer and their condition gets worse; they spend more money and get worse and the disease progresses."

"I'm literally waiting. I have a lot of apathy; that's just the way it is right now. I'm very hopeful; I want to do things but just don't have it in me."

You can help Matt Rizza by donating to the GoFundMe page at

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West Milford, NJ