SMILE A LITTLE WHILE: The Story of Rachel Riskin


When we first launched this site, it looked a lot different than it does today. Comparing the then and now of would be like comparing the Love Me Do Beatles to the Sgt. Pepper Beatles.

Yet while we look different and more sophisticated, the mission hasn’t changed and that is and always will be to bring Ravens coverage to you from a fan’s perspective. Sure our reach has expanded and our tools are more cutting-edge but our daily goal will always be to reward you with fun and enjoyment each time you are kind enough to visit our site.

We are in the business of “feel good.” We want to be an escape for folks – an escape from monotony and a chance to delve deeper into your passion for the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL.

But we don’t want to stop there.

You know I pay little attention to the daily news because it depresses me. I don’t want to hear about murderers and rapists and drugs and thieves. I prefer to surround myself with positive people who find the silver lining in problems and view adversity as an opportunity to get better.

Maybe that’s Pollyanna but I don’t care. It’s the way I choose to wake up, do my job, live my life and retire at night.

And that’s why from time to time you’ll see a human interest story discussed here in this column. Maybe bad news sells but by all means sell it somewhere else. I’ll take “feel good” any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

This approach has helped to pave the way for me to meet some wonderful people whose stories are quintessential chicken soup for the soul. I’d like to share another bowl of that soup with you today.

This serving is about a little girl, today a diehard Ravens’ fan who adores Joe Flacco – the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Michael Riskin who as you might guess are also Ravens’ fans now raising another future member of the purple and black brigade, their 3-year-old son Dylan.

Here is the story of Rachel Riskin as told by her mom Brandy…

On September 18 2006, my 3 year old daughter Rachel woke up at 5am screaming of a terrible headache.  Anxious and upset, I took her to Franklin Square Hospital, where they did a CT scan of her head.  It showed a large brain tumor on her cerebellum, which is the brain’s center of balance.   We were immediately transported by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital. 

We were told that Rachel would need brain surgery to remove the tumor, and that Dr. Ben Carson was going to be her surgeon.  The tumor was causing an excessive amount of fluid to build up inside her brain and they made it clear that she needed to have the operation right away. 

On September 19, the very next day (which also happened to be my 26th birthday), Dr. Carson spent 9 hours removing the tumor from my daughter’s brain.  Surrounded by family and friends, my husband and I anxiously awaited news from the operating room.  When the surgery was over, Dr. Carson came into the waiting room to speak with us.  He gave us the great news that he was confident that he’d removed the tumor completely.  He then told us he was very sure that it was cancer.  I’ll never forget the shocked silence that overcame all of us. It felt like no one was able to speak, or move, or even begin to grasp what that could mean. 

And I was 4 months pregnant with our second child. 

The next few days were a surreal whirlwind of emotion. Chemo. Radiation. Cancer.  The pathology report came back as a Medulloblastoma, a very highly aggressive form that spreads quickly.  They did an MRI of her entire spine, which showed that the disease had already spread.  This put her in the "Stage 4" category, which meant that we were going to be fighting for her life with everything we had in us.  

Dr. Carson also informed us of something else we hadn’t expected. 

Children who have large tumors removed from the base of their brain sometimes develop a condition called Posterior Fossa Syndrome.  Rachel lost her ability to talk, or walk, or sit up, or even hold her head up by herself.  She had to relearn everything, just like an infant going through the stages of development. From holding her head up, to sitting up, to taking first steps all over again. 

Not a single word came out of her mouth for almost 3 months. We spent over 2 months as an inpatient, getting chemo at Hopkins and rehab at Kennedy Kreiger Hospital.  Her little body was trying so hard to recover, and yet became sicker and sicker from the chemo.

She lost all hair, and had many complications from the intensive high doses of the chemo. My husband and I spent so many nights taking turns sleeping in hospital beds next to our daughter. I became increasingly uncomfortable with my growing pregnant belly.  But it didn’t matter, she needed me and I needed her.

The left side of her face had become paralyzed after her brain surgery. During the operation some important nerves in her brain had been damaged in order to remove all of the tumor. We had so much hope that as she recovered, her facial movement would come back. It never did. 

Starting in late 2007, she began a series of "smile surgeries", performed by a plastic surgeon at Hopkins.  She’s had tiny nerves and muscles removed from her leg and transplanted into her face – all in hopes that her smile would come back.

We were so blessed in so many ways.  We had one of the best surgeons in the world for Rachel’s brain surgery, who successfully removed the entire tumor in her brain. We’ve had amazing and wonderful oncologists, who we will be forever grateful to. After 2 rounds of chemotherapy, she had a clean MRI, the smaller spots on her spine had disappeared.  Three more rounds of harsh chemo and 6 weeks of radiation, and we were done with her treatment.  Frequent MRI scans over the past 3 years have all been clean.

We have had so much support from our family and friends. My husband and I were able to be there for her, and for each other, and for our newborn son.  It is the hardest thing we’ve ever been through.

But she’s here, and she’s tough. 

Today she is 7 years old and a 3 year cancer survivor.

She has come so far. 

She goes to school, has friends, and adores her little brother. She’s a persevering, sassy, and fearless little girl, with a heart of gold. 

She is beautiful.

She is innocence.

She is strength. 

And her smile is coming back.  She’s here with us, and she’s starting to smile again.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

"You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have."  – Anonymous

You know in football and in life we admire athletes and/or determined people who weather their personal “storms”, stare adversity in the face, swear that they won’t let it beat them and then emerge triumphantly.

We learn from them and we hope that they represent men and women of character who children aspire to be like.

In the case of Rachel Riskin the child is teaching us all.

One day, I hope to be just like her.
NOTE: If you would like an opportunity to meet this inspiring little girl, please join us at Liberatore’s in Perry Hall on Wednesday, October 27 at 7PM. There she will share her story in person in a little Q&A that will undoubtedly warm your heart. Thank you!

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About Tony Lombardi

Tony Lombardi
Tony is 24x7 Networks, LLC's founder (the parent of and His work has been featured on various sports websites and he is a regular guest on 105.7 The Fan. A diehard Fab Four fan, Tony is a frustrated musician who thinks beating on the steering wheel is akin...more

9 Raves on “SMILE A LITTLE WHILE: The Story of Rachel Riskin

  1. Joshua O'Grady on said:

    I’ve known Rachel since she was an infant, I am a close family Friend. I’ve seen her go through a lot of this process and I’ve seen her throughout her different stages of recovery, but I have never heard the story of how it was discovered and the details behind what it was. Rachel is stronger than any person I have ever met and she’s only 7 years old. Now that I have a little boy of my own, I could only imagine what Mike and Brandy went through with this. I am honored to know Rachel personally and I can vouch for the fact that you cant be in the same room as her without smiling. She is such a precious little girl.

  2. cory glaze on said:

    Excellent story. Thank you, Tony, for relaying that story to all of us. She is a true inspiration with a heart that only I can dream of having. Rachel is a raven; as they play like ravens, she fights through with the same intensity. Its been awhile since I last shed a tear, until now. Rachel has beat the ultimate opponent and showed us all what it means to be grateful. Thank you rachel. God bless.

  3. Mike Brown on said:

    Such courage and tenacity are rare in humanity, and for one as young as Rachel it is almost unheard of. God muct have big plans for this little angel.

  4. alisa kazmierczak on said:

    I have the supreme privilege of being one of Rachel’s teachers-a teacher of the hard of hearing, brought in to her family circle because of the hearing loss she now has (due to the aggressive chemotherapy.) I have had the pleasure of seeing her grow for 4 years from an uncertain pre-schooler to a self-confident, spit-fire pistol of a smart 2nd grader. She is truly a treasure and a miracle to behold. She’s also a little bossy sometimes LOL

    God certainly must have big plans for Rach! I am so grateful and blessed to know her and her family. Brandy and Mike are just as amazing and tenacious as Rachel-she gets it honestly. They do such a good job everyday of walking a line between babying her (who wouldn’t?!) and pushing her to be her very best, and a normal little girl in 2nd grade. Thank you so much for telling the story of an amazing and charming little girl. Come and meet her if you have the chance. It will change your life.

  5. christina bonney on said:

    I have the priveledge of knowing this fantastic, admirable, strong little girl!! And also consider her parents very close friends. I can tell you that watching Rachel go through all the hardships was difficult, but I knew she was strong and would overcome such obstacles! Rachel, you truly are a miracle child and we are blessed to have you in our lives. Thank you for being an inspiration to us all. We love you so much! You are truly amazing…and Kyle thinks you are his little sweetie :)

  6. Nikki Just on said:

    I, too, have had the priveledge of meeting this miraculous little princess! She truly is the sweetest little girl ever!! It’s funny how an adult can learn so much about life from a child. : )

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