After Ralph Lettieri Jr. went scuba diving in a freshwater lake in Westhampton last July, he could barely stand on his left leg.
Days later, he was admitted to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue, and a week later, he was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease.
“Doctors told me I had poison ivy, which acted as an entry point for the bacteria,” said Lettieri, 26, of East Patchogue. “After six surgeries and four weeks in an induced coma, I woke up without my left leg.”
The only way to stop the condition from spreading was to remove his leg above the knee, he said.
“He had kidney and liver failure. He was dying,” said his fiancee, Victoria Vazquez, 31. “If they didn’t take his leg, he wouldn’t have lived through the night. I’m thankful he’s alive.”
After getting used to a prosthetic leg, Lettieri, a volunteer with the Hagerman Fire Department in East Patchogue, had planned to pick up where he left off and tried doing some yard work earlier this month. But he wasn’t physically ready.
That’s where 30 students from Eastern Suffolk BOCES' Brookhaven Technical Center's Community Service Team came in. The students helped fix up the family’s backyard.
On April 11 and 16, students created and installed a white wooden lattice along the side of the family’s front and back porches. Students also leveled the dirt in the backyard to clear the way for an 8-by-10-foot, $2,600 cedar shed, donated by New Hampshire-based Shed USA.
The yard work was just the latest step in the students’ efforts to help Lettieri and his loved ones. They held a toy drive last October to provide his 3-year-old son, Jordan, with a fire truck filled with toys for Christmas. They also sold chocolates in the shape of fire trucks, raising enough money to provide the family with $400 worth of Home Depot gift cards.
Kathleen Gaffga, a senior at Southold High School who is also enrolled in the early childhood education program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said she was honored to help.
“It’s nice that we get to do something for a family who has already been through so much,” said Gaffga, 17. “If we can make their lives easier in any way, we’re happy to do that.”
Jayne Kaht, an early childhood education teacher at the center, learned of Lettieri’s situation after Hagerman firefighters came to the school during Fire Prevention Week last October.
“This is our students' way of giving back to the community,” said Kaht, 55, of Huntington. “And this project is so close to my heart because of what happened to my own son.”
Kaht’s son, Nicholas Lorusso, 27, was paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a motorcycle accident in 2007. He needed to use a wheelchair, and his fellow firefighters from the Melville Fire Department installed a ramp at his home.
“I was overjoyed that these students could help this family using the skills they’ve learned in school,” Kaht said. “I just hope with this experience they see the value of community service.”
Lettieri, who has been a firefighter for seven years and now serves as department secretary, said he can finally clean out the family's garage and move toys and yard equipment to the shed.
“After the accident, I couldn’t do it myself,” Lettieri said. “I’m extremely thankful for their help.”
And because of his enduring love for firefighting, Lettieri is optimistic about returning to active duty within the year.
“I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps, and once firefighting is in your blood, it’s always there,” he said of his father, Ralph Sr., a former chief with the Hagerman Fire Department. “It’s what I love doing and this is only going to push me to work that much harder to get back out there.”