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He never lost sight of his dreams

East Boston High salutatorian didn’t let eye tumor stop him

Steven Rinaldi, 18, and his family received a shock four years ago when a doctor discovered a tumor in his eye socket. Luckily, it turned out to be benign. Steven Rinaldi, 18, and his family received a shock four years ago when a doctor discovered a tumor in his eye socket. Luckily, it turned out to be benign.
(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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Steven Rinaldi set ambitious goals when he began at East Boston High School: Graduate among the top of his class in four years and attend a top college.

He hit the books, joined the swim team, and took part in other extracurricular activities. All appeared to be going smoothly, until one day in March of his freshman year, when his parents decided he should get his right eye checked out. “It looked like a lazy eye,’’ recalled Rinaldi, now 18.

Instead, a doctor jolted the East Boston family by telling them Steven had a tumor in his eye socket, requiring extensive surgery and months of recovery that would seem daunting for even the toughest student.

But throughout the frightening ordeal, his family said, Rinaldi never abandoned his dreams. Yesterday, he graduated as salutatorian from East Boston High with a full academic scholarship to Boston University.

Rinaldi, the youngest of five siblings, credited his perseverance to setting high goals and to the unwavering support of his parents, who long stressed the importance of doing well in school regardless of obstacles. All the Rinaldi children have gone to college and have either earned degrees or are on track to graduate.

“It was my job to get straight A’s,’’ Rinaldi said matter-of-factly in a recent interview. “I listened to my parents.’’

He vividly recalls the March 2007 visit to the doctor at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. A specialist gently pressed his thumb around Rinaldi’s eye. He felt a lump. A CAT scan later revealed the tumor.

Although doctors were confident the tumor wasn’t deadly, they wouldn’t know for sure until it was removed — causing months of worry for Rinaldi’s parents, Nancy and Salvatore.

“I was a basket case,’’ said Salvatore Rinaldi, a service worker for NStar who lost 20 pounds as he fretted about the worst-case scenarios.

By contrast, Steven Rinaldi appeared unfazed.

“He was like ‘Let’s get it done,’ ’’ said his mother, a crossing guard. “I’m very proud of him.’’

Steven Rinaldi said: “I wasn’t as scared as I should have been. . . . I could have had cancer.’’

Rinaldi said he tried not to think about the tumor as he waited several months for surgery. He finished his freshman year, continuing to earn straight A’s. He played on the school baseball team that spring and told few classmates about his condition.

A week before the surgery, Rinaldi, whose dark hair was 14 inches long, went to a local barber and had it shaved off, donating the locks to an organization that makes wigs for cancer survivors. His three older brothers, in a show of support, also got buzz cuts.

The surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in August 2007 took eight hours and required doctors to carefully peel back his skin, from the top of his head to an area around his eye socket, and to cut bone from his forehead. They removed a tumor the size of a walnut.

Days later, doctors delivered a positive prognosis: The tumor was benign; no chemotherapy would be necessary.

But Rinaldi still faced about three months of recovery from the surgery, which left him with seven metal plates and 16 screws in his forehead, along with considerable bruising and swelling. His right eye was purple and larger than a golf ball.

“I looked like a monster,’’ Rinaldi said.

After three days at the hospital, Rinaldi returned to the family homestead — a two-family house down the street from the high school, where his family lived upstairs from his grandmother, who had raised her family there.

Rinaldi stayed out of school for about two months, but he didn’t let his schoolwork slide. An East Boston High teacher came each day after school to tutor him.

His parents said Rinaldi handled the diagnosis, surgery, and recovery with great ease — a notable sign of his can-do attitude.

“Even as a young child, he was very self-motivated,’’ his father said. “He had certain goals he would set.’’

In middle school, for instance, Rinaldi decided to become more physically fit, his father said. He lifted weights, went running, and changed his eating habits — ditching carbohydrates and junk food for more protein and fresh fruits and vegetables. He has maintained those habits to this day.

By the time he returned to classes in late October, Rinaldi was “raring to go,’’ said his swim coach, Dave Arinella.

He had covered so much academic material at home with his tutor that he was ahead of his peers in some classes, Arinella said. His recovery also sped along, enabling him to be on the swim team that year.

“He never missed a beat,’’ said Arinella, noting that Rinaldi was captain of both the swim and baseball teams this year. “He’s an amazing kid. . . . You will never ever in the next 100 years find a more well-rounded educated athletic high school graduate.’’

Rinaldi, who decided in the first grade that he wanted to be a dentist someday, said he was so impressed with his surgeon that he now wants to be a neurosurgeon so he can help save lives.

“It’s been a long four years,’’ Rinaldi said. “I can’t believe it’s over.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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