Rachel Ragosa is a 31-year-old third-degree Judo black belt.
A year ago she began a new-to-her Martial Art, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
She wanted to share her story, “…to help others going through a hard time, to tell people there is hope, there is always a way. You must keep moving forward, even if it is the tiniest of steps.”
When Rachel was in the 6th grade, her family moved to Calgary, Canada where life for the chunky middle schooler from Houston, Texas did not go well: she was bullied and teased for three years as her self-worth plummeted. When her dad was transferred back to Houston, she decided to start over in her new high school.
“I thought Martial Arts might help me, so I looked up Martial Arts in the Yellow Pages (the Google of the times) and chose Judo.”
She and her Dad visited a Dojo called the “The School of Hard Knocks” where Sensei Andrew Connelly, a former 101st Airborne, Army Ranger and Vietnam Vet was putting his students through their exercises.
Her parents gasped at the rough, hard movements. But Rachel saw it differently.
“People were being thrown around and choked out, and all I could think was THIS IS AMAZING! I NEED TO LEARN THIS!”
Her parents were not supportive at first, worried about her getting hurt, but, “I told my parents I needed to do this,” and with their blessings, she began her Martial Arts journey.
She became obsessed with Judo and began competing. The overweight, formerly bullied girl would become the Texas State Champion three years in a row and placed 9th at Nationals. She would take her second-degree black belt with her when she eventually moved on from Texas.
As she matured from girl to woman, Rachel loved the feeling of strength that Judo gave her. “The feeling of being strong is what I liked.”
Little did she know she would have to draw on that strength again, and yet again, in the not too distant future as personal tragedy stalked her.
After high school, Rachel enrolled in Sam Houston State College located in Huntsville, Texas as a Political Science major. It was there in 2006 she met her future husband, Tommy Quapp.
Tommy was a Geology major and also in the Texas National Guard. Their connection was immediate. After dating for two months, Tommy was deployed to Iraq as an Air Force Crew Chief for F-16s where he would serve two tours of duty.
“Tommy loved planes and aviation…and he always liked that I did Judo, the way it made me feel. He understood the level of happiness I got from it, happiness even I can’t convey. He loved seeing me happy.”
But finding a dojo in Huntsville proved difficult. She could not train regularly, but the lessons her Sensei had taught her remained:
Keep moving forward.
It was a long-distance relationship while Tommy was deployed. While in Iraq, he told Rachel about daily life there, including the smell of the burn pits he was exposed to. When he returned to Texas, they moved into together and planned to be married.
They both graduated from Sam Houston State, and in 2009 Rachel was accepted at California Western School of Law. They moved to San Diego where Rachel began law school, Tommy got a job, and in 2011 they were married.
“We had an amazing marriage.”
Their happiness knew no bounds. Life in sunny California, madly in love, and law school graduation was on the horizon. Looking to the future, they felt nothing could top this, except one thing: “...we wanted a baby and tried for a year. When I found out I was pregnant in 2013, we were thrilled. We had just bought a house, had good jobs, and now our baby was on the way. We were adulting!”
Charlie Eleanor Quapp was born January 28, 2014. “Her name means Strong Light,” Rachel said.
Charlie had a perfect, natural birth, with no complications. Until…
The lactation consultant came in and seemed concerned. “Next thing I know they are rushing Charlie off to the NICU, but I was still pretty high from the birth; I wasn’t worried.”
Tommy was there, and he went with Charlie to the NICU so Rachel could shower. “As I was getting out of the shower my husband walked in pale and white.” He said, “Her blood sugar is low.”
What did that mean?
She rushed to the NICU and saw her newborn in the middle of machines and tubes and doctors and nurses. She couldn’t comprehend what was going on and was still not grasping the gravity of the situation until a nurse approached her and gently asked, “Do you have any religious preferences?”
“I don’t remember anything after that. I know I stayed in the hospital visiting center for a week and then I was hospitalized for mastitis; I had an infection from pumping my breast milk at the hospital for Charlie.”
Days later Tommy and Rachel heard the lab results: their baby had Glutaric Aciduria Type 2. “GA2” is a rare, genetic disorder that interferes with the body's ability to break down proteins and fats to produce energy.
Rachel asked for the prognosis and was told, “You would be lucky to get a year.”
Could it be more than a year?
“Yes, but not likely.”
Keep moving forward.
Charlie spent two months in the NICU and was sent home, on hospice. Her newborn baby would be on hospice.
“My whole world was upside down. Nurses, tubes, cords, medical equipment. As I mastered feeding tubes and blood sugar levels I was determined to learn everything about GA2.”
Charlie’s needs were great, including the cost of her medications.
“I went back to work as a freelance writer when she was a year old. Her medications were not covered by insurance because they are all supplements, not prescription meds. The cost was $700-$1200 a month.”
Rachel was able to work from home so she could be with Charlie. Things seemed to be going well. Charlie was improving, and Rachel was able to give her the care she needed.
Keep moving forward
In January 2016, Charlie’s second birthday approached, and hopes were high. Tommy had a good job with General Atomics, Rachel was working from home, and Charlie was doing well. They had established a routine, and now they were about to celebrate the miracle of their daughter’s second birthday!
As Rachel was preparing things for Charlie’s party, Tommy said he was having major back pain. Rachel thought it must be a kidney stone. “I was busy with the party, so he drove himself to the ER.”
Tommy called her two hours later. “They think I have lymphoma,” and he broke down crying.
They would learn soon enough that he had follicular lymphoma, but the doctors told him he was lucky to have gotten this one because “…it was treatable.”
But sometimes doctors are wrong.
Rachel and Tommy tried hard to resume a normal, routine life. “Tommy started chemo, and he was getting better. I took off time from work. We went to the park, we went to the zoo, we spent a lot of family time together.” Everything was good. Tommy finished chemo in May 2016 and made plans to go back to work. He was up for a promotion.
He had one last scan scheduled for June, but their insurance denied the scan. Rachel felt Tommy was doing well. “We weren’t really concerned with the scan. He had finished his chemo, and he was doing well.”
On July 1, 2016, Tommy told Rachel, “I feel the cancer pain again.”
Things went from bad to worse. The cancer was still there. More aggressive chemo and now a bone marrow transplant.
Rachel was struggling. She had a special needs daughter and a critically ill husband to take care of, and the pressure was immense.
One afternoon in September, she got upset with Tommy. “He was taking heavy meds and was nodding off…he was always so drugged up around Charlie. I was short with him and told him to go lay down.” Two hours later she went to check on him. “I couldn’t wake him up. I thought he had OD’d.”
Rachel dialed 911 and put on Sesame Street before the paramedics arrived for Charlie to try and distract her from what was happening. She called her parents who were in town, and they rushed over to take care of Charlie so Rachel could go to the hospital with Tommy.
Once at the hospital, she was told her husband was in a coma and had suffered a stroke and a brain bleed caused by bacterial meningitis, which is highly contagious. If you get it, you could be dead within a day. She was put in isolation to rule out bacterial meningitis and to keep it from spreading.
Still in a coma, more tests were run: the cancer had spread to his spinal fluid.
More chemo…this time directed at the spinal fluid.
Tommy fought back, and he was able to go home.
At home once again Rachel tried to maintain the norm. “We had a family Halloween.”
But on November 3rd, Tommy returned to the hospital.
A few days later as she moved around his bedside, reluctant to leave but needing to go home to Charlie, she noticed Tommy following her every move, his eyes never wavering from her face. She smiled at him. “What are you staring at?”
“I’m just looking at you,” he said to her. Then, “I feel so sorry for you.”
That night at home, Tommy called her, but she missed the call. She called back. “I am so glad I called him back, and he answered.”
"I love you so much. Goodnight.” was what he told her.
Tommy passed away on November 9th, 2016.
Keep moving forward.
“And then I started a new chapter of my life with Charlie.”
“I had not been taking care of myself. I knew I needed to be healthy. I was going to CrossFit when I could," and Tommy had encouraged her to return to the mat, but she had too much on her plate at the time to think about it much.
After Tommy died, she decided to return to Martial Arts. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to try another one, apart from Judo.
One day she saw a picture on Facebook of her CrossFit Coach, Nick Hawkes, training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When she asked him about it, Nick told her he trained at Barum Jiu-Jitsu and added, “Come check it out.”
Never having trained BJJ, she was uncertain but felt maybe this new Martial Art could help her.
“I started at Barum Jiu-Jitsu in January 2017. It reminded me of the dojo at home. It felt so familiar.”
Rachel and Charlie (now three years old) started going to Barum’s Women’s class on Saturday mornings. Charlie played with the other kids while their moms trained in front of them on the mat.
Rachel was enjoying BJJ, meeting new people, she was working again, and Charlie was doing well.
“We began a new routine. It was good.”
Then, Rachel began to notice changes in Charlie. “She kept getting weaker.”
Charlie needed a liver transplant.
In late May, Rachel took Charlie to Rady Children’s Hospital because her O2 levels were so low. Charlie was emergency airlifted to UCLA Medical Center for a liver transplant even though one had never been performed on a pediatric GA2 patient.
“Nick drove me to LA at 10 pm that night, so I could be there with her.”
Charlie died on June 8, 2017.
Keep moving forward
A week later Rachel went to Open Mat. Or maybe it was drilling, she couldn’t remember.
Why back on the mat so quickly? “It’s a place I can go and not have to think about anything but Jiu-Jitsu.”
Rachel continued to train and to try and heal from the loss of her husband and her daughter.
Once again as a white belt, the mat would be Rachel’s place of solace. She knew nobody would fault her if she decided just to close herself off from the world. So why do it?
“Tommy and Charlie would love to be here. They loved life. So I do it for them.”
On Saturday, February 18, 2018, at a belt promotion ceremony at Barum Jiu-Jitsu, Rachel was awarded her blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“My Sensei taught me, no matter what, keep moving forward.”
You can find Rachel on the mat at San Diego’s Barum Jiu-Jitsu and at work as the Director of Mediation Services at the San Diego Mediation Center.