Kenn Ricci (ACCT '78) remembers like it was yesterday, how his baby son Austin would wave his arms feverishly and practically leap out of his high chair when it was time to eat. “Like he was starving,” says Ricci. But as soon as he would eat, he’d throw everything up. Turns out, he was starving, although it would take months to determine that young Austin had cystic fibrosis, causing mucous to block his pancreatic ducts and keep him from digesting his food. A synthetic enzyme that he takes before every meal keeps that problem in check now. “Not being able to digest food is not a killer,” Ricci says. “He could live with that his whole life.” Ultimately, it’s the decline in lung function caused by chronic infection that is most worrisome.
But for now, Austin, 12, swims, skis, plays basketball and is as avid a Notre Dame football fan as his dad. And news on the cystic fibrosis front is encouraging. Life expectancy has tripled to age 37, and phase three of clinical trials has just been completed for a gene-therapy treatment for the double-gene defect that causes 70 percent of cases, including Austin’s.
Ricci has described Austin as someone who is very focused and determined—in fact, relentless—about something he wants to achieve. He might well have been describing himself. He’s an astute businessman, entrepreneur in the aviation industry and experienced pilot. In 2007, Ricci made a $2 million gift to establish an endowed chair supporting the work of leading cystic fibrosis researcher Michael Konstan at University Hospital’s Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. Ricci’s also been actively involved with fundraising for the past decade for the Northern Ohio Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which honored him last April for his support for CF research and treatment. “That was a pretty big event,” Ricci says. “It raised about half a million dollars for the foundation.” He then defers credit for his role in the evening’s success, ascribing it instead to Austin, who’s speech that night brought attendees to their feet. “They raised two-and-a-half times the money they ever raised,” says the proud papa. “So, obviously, he did a very good job.”