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In sickness and in health: Franklin resident's determination to wed despite cancer inspires others

Despite cancer, a Franklin resident's determination to wed inspires others

Rachel Tripi, a Franklin resident who recently completed cancer treatment, smiles at her father, Vince, during a fundraiser at Culver's restaurant on June 10. Her fiance, Matt Gutbrod, sits across from her in the booth.

Rachel Tripi, a Franklin resident who recently completed cancer treatment, smiles at her father, Vince, during a fundraiser at Culver's restaurant on June 10. Her fiance, Matt Gutbrod, sits across from her in the booth. Photo By submitted photo

June 17, 2014

Franklin — Rachel Tripi, a Franklin resident, and her fiancé Matt Gutbrod didn't allow her brain cancer to hinder their plans for a summer wedding.

When Tripi was diagnosed with astrocytoma in November, the couple had been engaged for more than a year.

"We didn't want to postpone anything because we didn't know what would happen," Tripi said.

After suffering from incessant migraines that began in August, Tripi was given an MRI at Froedtert Hospital. Doctors found a large mass behind her right eye and she was diagnosed with a Grade IV astrocytoma brain tumor.

Astrocytoma is often found in older adults, said Tripi, who is 23, and the survival rate isn't often promising.

"The doctors told me not to look up (astrocytoma) online because I was younger (than the average demographic), and this was a different instance," she said. "So, of course, I looked it up online."

"When I found out what it was, it was heartbreaking," Gutbrod said. "I thought, 'We've worked together all this way, and then I may lose you in three or four months?'"|Tripi underwent brain surgery on November 12, when 90 percent of her tumor had been removed. She completed her chemotherapy and radiation in January.

Rachel's father, Vince, said that she had been given four to eight months to live after the diagnosis.

When Tripi and her family met at the Culver's restaurant in Franklin for a fundraiser on June 10, she was seven months in and feeling fine, greeting her supporters with a confident smile.

"We're pretty much a faith-based family," Vince said. "There must be some reason why she's had zero ill-effects from the chemo. Her doctors are actually giddy about it."

Continuing life as normal

Tripi returned to work as lifeguard and swim instructor at the Princeton Club in New Berlin and the Elite Sports Club in Mequon shortly after her treatment.

She also continued her classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is earning a degree in comparative literature.

Life has pretty much gotten back on track, she said.

"We have had a lot of friends and family support us throughout this whole ordeal," she said.

More support for Tripi and her fiancé was on the way.

Making a dream come true

Touched by Tripi's unwavering desire to follow through with her wedding, doctors at Froedtert Hospital reached out to the Eternal Wish Foundation, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization dedicated to granting wishes to adults with life threatening conditions.

Tom Chirafisi, founder and executive director of Eternal Wish, started the organization in memory of his grandmother, who treated the family to trips to Hawaii before dying from breast cancer.

Although the organization has been in the works for several years, Eternal Wish officially began its operations in 2013.

Eternal Wish works like an adult-version of Make-A-Wish Foundation but helps individuals who have suffered irreparable damage, in addition to those who are terminally ill.

When Eternal Wish heard Tripi's story, they wanted to help raise money for the wedding, Chirafisi said.

"Rachel is so upbeat," Chirafisi said. "You can never say for sure if something like this is no longer terminal … but when we grant people their wish, they develop this new burst of life. It's so inspiring for us."

Chirafisi noted that Eternal Wish recipients often ask for wishes that would benefit their surviving families, rather than something just for themselves.

"A lot of times, it's not about the person (suffering); it's about the family," he said.

Culver's pitches in

Since its establishment, Eternal Wish has made some corporate partners along the way.

"We don't have a big budget at all," Chirafisi said. "We have corporate donors, but we also hold fundraisers to fill the gaps in between to make someone's wish come true."

Oddly enough, Eternal Wish caught the attention of Lea Culver, the co-founder of the Culver's restaurant chain, at a "Wisconsin Day" held in Phoenix, Arizona, this spring.

The event invited notable guests from Wisconsin, including the Culvers, to attend.

At "Wisconsin Day," Culver met a relative of someone in Eternal Wish, who then recounted Tripi's story.

Culver said the story moved her.

"I've had friends that passed away from cancer," she said, "and when I heard about this young couple who still wanted to get married after she was (diagnosed) was very touching."

Culver later accepted an invitation to attend a June 10 fundraiser held at the Culver's in Franklin, located at 4220 W. Oakwood Part Court.

Culver, the executive director of the Culver's VIP Foundation, said she attends many volunteer events for good causes.

"It's a special blessing to get to know all these people who volunteer and help make a difference in someone's life — someone who has been through so much," she said.

"We're all in this world together … and I think everyone wants to make a difference somehow, you just need to give them that opportunity sometimes."

Eternal Wish's goal for the wedding is $10,000, according to its fundraiser website, www.razoo.com/story/Ewfrachelwedding.

"To see this — it's just unbelievable," Tripi said as she looked around the Culver's restaurant filled with supporters. "We weren't expecting any of this. It's overwhelming. We're so thankful for all of this support."

Tripi said the wedding date is set for August 31.

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