When Frankie Anzaldi was a boy, a doctor told his Rocky Point parents that his epilepsy was so bad he would never tie his shoes.
That was devastating for them to hear, but Frank and Michele Anzaldi made it a motivator to help Frankie overcome his disability. Their zeal was matched by their son's indomitable spirit.
On Sunday, Frankie, now 16, will lace up his blue-and-gray running shoes and run 13.1 miles in the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon.
The tall, thin teen has come a long way from the severe seizures that damaged his brain — with assists from a handful of daily pills, an electrical implant in his brain, and the love of his parents and others.
He still shows the signs of the epilepsy — he has trouble speaking and moving smoothly and it takes him a moment or two to put his thoughts together. The implant, however, has significantly diminished the duration and severity of the seizures, his parents say.
When Frankie runs, there are long stretches when you wouldn't know anything was wrong with him, said his father, Frank Anzaldi.
In those moments, Frankie feels he is not defined by his disease, he is beating it.
"I am stronger than my seizures," Frankie said.
'The hardest working kid'
Frankie has two passions — running and music. When he was younger, his mother drove him to school early so he could watch the high school marching band practice on the nearby field.
During Sunday's half-marathon, Frankie's running partner will be his music tutor, Michel Nadeau, who's creative methods helped Frankie learn to play the trombone.
"He never focused on what [Frankie] couldn't do, but what he could do," said Michele Anzaldi.
Frankie is a freshman at Rocky Point High School who attends a mix of mainstream and special education classes. He also plays trombone in the school's marching band — the one he watched as a kid.
"He's the hardest working kid," said Nadeau, who, in addition to private music lessons, teaches music at Burr Intermediate School in Commack. "He's got the best work ethic I've ever seen."
When the duo run past NYU Langone Health's epilepsy center on 34th Street in Manhattan on Sunday, Frankie said it will be among the proudest moments of his life.
It was the doctors at NYU who implanted his nerve stimulator in 2011. It's a kind of pacemaker for his brain, implanted in his upper chest and connected by wires that run under his skin to his brain. The device sends electrical impulses to his brain that interrupt and diminish the seizures.
Frankie said he's told his doctors and nurses to watch out for him during the run. He wants to show them something.
"How fast and how strong I am," he said.
Adopted from China
Frankie's story started half a world away.
The Anzaldis adopted him from China when he was 5. They hardly knew anything about the boy beyond his adorable picture. When he came here and showed the signs of physical difficulties, his new parents didn't know what it was or what to do.
His epilepsy is not the kind in which a person falls on the ground and starts convulsing. It's more subtle. He might just become a little confused or start staring off into space. Sometimes one side of his body will go stiff.
The Anzaldis took him to doctor after doctor. He'll outgrow it, one said. It's just his nervousness adjusting to a new life, said another. But as the symptoms got worse, the diagnosis became clear.
A five-minute epileptic fit can be a medical emergency, said Frank Anzaldi. Frankie was having a handful of seizures a day, some lasting 90 minutes. Such seizures can cause brain damage that is irreversible.
By the time Frankie was 10, the damage from the seizures made it clear he could no longer play sports with the other kids, even though he loved soccer and baseball.
Two years ago, when he was 14, he told his parents he wanted to take up running. At the time he couldn't run a lap. Sothey found a local athletic program for kids with disabilities. There, he met other kids like him striving to be athletic, said his father.
"He worked at it, and worked at it," Frank Anzaldi said. "It helped him feel better, stronger."
Frankie now runs on the high school track team, competing in the 1,500 and 3,000 meter races.
"He's competing with his peers, which is nice to see," said his father.
Most horsepower for his engine
Frankie is excited about Sunday's run, not nervous at all.
His father, though, took the trouble on Friday to drive down to find out exactly where the race begins by Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Frankie has run four half-marathons before, but this is the first one he'll run with his music teacher. Nadeau, 52, who's been teaching music for 31 years, said he has been inspired by Frankie's achievements.
"Frankie gets the most amount of horsepower out of the engine he has," Nadeau said.
For Frankie, this run is just another step on his way to another achievement, running past whatever limitations stand in his way.
"I have no limits," he said.