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Torsiello’s ‘beautiful life’ leads her to the commencement stage as CCRI’s 2024 student speaker

Torsiello’s ‘beautiful life’ leads her to the commencement stage as CCRI’s 2024 student speaker

When she lay bedridden for months on end wondering what was wrong and how to fix it, Marissa Torsiello found strength through her bucket list of “big and small moments” – all the things she wanted to do when she was finally healthy enough to start living again:

  • Watch her little brother grow up
  • Blow bubbles with the neighborhood kids
  • Build one more snowman
  • Read one more book
  • And go back to school to finish her college degree

“I found my peace in the ‘not knowing,’” she said, “because if everything was uncertain, it still felt like everything was possible.”

Twelve years since her journey took a near decade-long detour through healthcare providers and hospitals – most of which left her with more questions than answers – Torsiello finally graduates this week with her associate degree in Social Services as part of the Community College of Rhode Island’s Class of 2024. 

The 30-year-old West Hartford, CT, native and Providence, RI, resident is transferring to Simmons University in the fall to pursue her bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Policy & Management. As this year’s student commencement speaker, Torsiello will deliver a message of hope and resiliency while focusing on the sense of belonging she felt the first time she stepped foot on campus at CCRI – a feeling that wasn’t always there when she shuffled from one medical professional to another during her darkest hours.

“Being part of the CCRI Class of 2024,” Torsiello said, “is one of the greatest honors and greatest privileges, of my hard, beautiful life.”

This long, winding journey from doctor’s offices to the commencement stage began in 2012 when – after suffering through a childhood of “mysterious illnesses” that forced her to miss months of school at a time – Torsiello enrolled at Muhlenberg College, only to drop out during her freshman year when what began as staggered bouts of fatigue, pain, and dizziness slowly stripped her of her cognitive functions. 

Torsiello went from a straight-A student in the classroom to unable to walk across her dorm room, and over the next seven years remained in a constant state of uncertainty marred by symptoms so random doctors couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. They ruled out everything – celiac, cancer, chronic migraines, vertigo, even HIV. As she remained hooked to an IV while confined to her bed, friends she once shared classrooms with crossed the commencement stage to earn their degrees.

Things got harder as the days, months, and years went by, but Torsiello – the middle child between two boys – recalled a family in her neighborhood who lost their middle child in a car accident. She remembered the effect it had on the family, particularly the youngest sibling, and vowed one way or another to keep living for her “baby brother.”

“I fought mostly for him,” she said. “By years four or five, I found this fire in me that was living for more than that and this hope that maybe my life would go back to normal in my thirties or my forties.”

Through countless hours of thumbing through medical journals, Torsiello stumbled upon a rare genetic connective tissue disorder with symptoms that mirrored hers, everything from joint pain and extreme fatigue to digestive issues and dizziness. 

“I immediately knew that that's what it was,” she said. 

After another decline in health in 2019, Torsiello finally got the diagnosis she needed and moved to Rhode Island for specialized care. A year later, she underwent life-changing neurosurgery to repair an occult tethered spinal cord, a condition in which patients suffer all the effects of a tethered cord despite otherwise normal imaging.

The first day after her surgery – also her 27th birthday – was the beginning of a new lease on life. 

“It was the first time I had a concrete answer,” Torsiello said. “I knew in that moment something special had just happened. My life would never be the same.”

While her condition is incurable, the symptoms are, as she puts it, “being managed as well as possible.” Through the recovery process, she regained the ability to do all the little things she loved most. She could feel the grass between her toes when walking outside. She could feel the salt water on her legs at the beach. She could read again – just a few paragraphs at a time until she suddenly read entire books in a matter of months. Once she started writing in her journal, the idea of going back to college no longer seemed farfetched.

Since she now lived in Rhode Island, CCRI made the most sense. She started out slow, enrolling in a certificate program during the summer of 2021 to get her feet wet. Each time she unlocked a new achievement, she set the bar higher. Having had the privilege of healthcare and basic needs throughout her medical journey – never having to choose between medicine or food – Torsiello was motivated to help those who aren’t as privileged navigate the healthcare system. 

In 2022, she enrolled full-time at CCRI as a Business Administration major to better understand the business side of healthcare and medicine. A year later, she switched to the Social Services pathway so that if her health declined and she couldn’t continue her education beyond CCRI, a degree in social work would allow her to pursue volunteerism in her quest to make a difference. 

CCRI stood by her every step of the way.

“They far exceeded my expectations,” Torsiello said. “Advising helped me register, Disability Services helped me obtain my accommodations, the Tutoring Center taught me to use a calculator again – it was everything I could’ve hoped for, and the experience really helped me readjust to life as a college student again.”

With one degree in tow and another on the way, Torsiello admits every day is still a work in progress. How she feels can change by the hour. The condition, she says, is best described as an “invisible illness,” because while she often looks fine on the surface, she doesn’t always feel that way. 

“The goalposts always move,” she said. “When I was bed-bound, all I wanted was to be able to go downstairs. Once I was downstairs, I wanted to go outside. And when I was outside, I wanted to leave the neighborhood. I’ve had months at CCRI where I felt like a fully functioning student, which, for me, meant being able to do 10–15 hours of schoolwork that week, so my definition of what normal is, is not what normal is for other people.”

Walking across the stage and standing in front of thousands of her peers at the Amica Mutual Pavilion to address her graduating class is no doubt the biggest of the “big moments” on her bucket list. When the siblings grow up, the snowmen melt, and all the bubbles have been blown, earning a college degree against what seemed like insurmountable odds may be Torsiello’s legacy in this remarkable journey.

“It’s an ongoing journey,” she said. “We like concrete answers in life, but this story doesn’t have one. I’ve had to get comfortable in the land of ambiguity. I consider myself ‘better for me’ and that is more than I could’ve asked for.”

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