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Health restored, greeter plans for May return

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, April 5, 2013


Like many in the Notre Dame community, South Dining Hall greeter Lila Ritschard started her Easter morning with a prayer. 

It was the only way she felt could make a difference. The previous night, her husband John Ritschard stopped breathing on his own and was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center. 

“It’s the only thing I can do,” she said. “It comforts us to start every morning with a prayer.”

John Ritschard, 82, regretted missing any time at his weekday job swiping cards during dinnertime at South Dining Hall over the past five years. So much that he spent the last two months at his post shaking hands, handing out candy bars and telling jokes to students while a severe case of pneumonia and a bacterial infection built up in his lungs.  

Doctors told Lila most people at his age have a 25 percent survival rate, but all John wanted to do was return to South Dining Hall.

“He told me, ‘You just tell [the students] I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.’ And I [told] him that he won’t,” Lila said. “But he said, ‘I’ve got to get back to see my kids.’ … They’re his life. He really loves being out here and he misses it.”

Lila said her husband’s health began to wane in January, when he came down with the flu. He started experiencing back pain, which they wrote off as a pulled muscle. Still, his lingering flu gradually turned into pneumonia and the couple discovered the persistent back pain turned out to be the result of a lung infection. 

On March 21, Lila said she noticed a slight change in her husband’s demeanor, which prompted her to request a day off of work for John. 
“He wasn’t happy with me about that but he didn’t have a choice,” she said. 

That afternoon, she said John collapsed in the couple’s Mishawaka home.

“I wouldn’t have been there a half hour later, but thank God I was there,” Lila said. “So I called the ambulance and they got him stabilized and took him to the emergency room. They did a CAT scan and his whole chest cavity was full of fluid. … [They found out] the bacteria encased the lung and it was hard for him to breath. So they had to go in and scrap the lung. They peeled it like an orange.”

In the following weeks, John’s health became even more complicated, Lila said. Doctors drained over six liters of fluid from his lungs and chest cavity and diagnosed him with congestive heart failure, which led to kidney failure. Meanwhile, his blood-thinning medication eventually led to hemorrhaging. 

Yet when her husband came out of surgery, Lila said she noticed the same John she had known in 13 years of marriage. 

“They were trying to settle him down in the ICU. They try to roll him over and he is telling them riddles. That tells me he’s
okay,” she said. ” He keeps them in stitches up there [at the hospital]. He seems to be the hit of most of the nurses who take care of him.”

John began walking on his own Wednesday and is expected to start rehabilitation by the end of next week. Lila said she hopes her husband will be home to celebrate their 14th anniversary on April 17. 

“[The doctors] are all amazed at how he has recovered so quickly,” Lila said. “He has been in the hospital only three times in his life, all before he turned 70. This was a lot. It did scare him though.”

Despite the scare, Lila said the students he cares about at the University continue to one of her husband’s greatest concerns during his hospital stay. 

“He always asks, ‘Did you see so-and-so? Are they okay? Nobody’s telling them jokes,'” she said. “Even as sick as he’s been, he’s been very concerned with getting back there.”

Lila spent 14-hour days at the hospital in the first week of John’s stay, but returned to South Dining Hall last week at his request when his condition began to improve. 

“He’s got a couple more weeks to go at least,” she said. “He’ll be [at the hospital] the rest of this week and probably into next week. If anybody wants to go see him or send anything to him they are more than welcome to. He’s in Room 5510 on the fifth floor.

“He would be so appreciative. It would cheer him up so much.”

If John continues to improve, Lila said she would schedule him to return to South Dining Hall for the last week of school.

“Oh yeah, he always looks forward to it every day,” she said. “He always enjoyed being around young people. He just relates to them. He’s always got a great sense of humor and never gets upset or angry or anything. He would probably do it even if he wasn’t paid. He just enjoys it so much.”

To the Ritschards, the support on campus “means the whole world,” as a few students have already visited John during the hospital’s daytime hours. But what does one give the man in Room 5510 who gives so much and asks for nothing but a smile in return?

“We don’t do it for [money],” Lila said. “We do it because of the blessings. Students are a blessing and we love them. We have been extremely grateful for all the prayers. We always keep all of the students here in our prayers and we’re so thankful for theirs.”