Ariana Ianniciello sings through the pain

Photo by Isabelle Stephen

ARIANA IANNICIELLO (IT)

Montrealer Ariana Ianniciello is one of a handful of youngsters invited to Las Vegas this November to attend the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, an official stop on the PGA Tour. The 14-year-old won’t be playing any golf at the event. Instead, she’s been chosen as a patient ambassador for the hospital. Every year, the Shriners select patient ambassadors from each of their hospitals to represent the work they do caring for sick kids.

The Las Vegas tournament is a special opportunity for patients, such as Ianniciello, to be part of a major sporting event while sharing their stories about how the Shriners has changed their lives.  “This is such a big deal for me. I’ve been a patient at the Shriners for years, and the doctors there have done so much for me,” explains Ianniciello. “It’s such a warm and welcoming place. They make kids feel comfortable and not afraid.”

Although you could never tell just by looking at her, this young woman has been through some pretty tough physical challenges.

Ianniciello’s mother, Marlena Cardoso, had a feeling there was something going on with her daughter when, at 10 months old, the baby was still unable to hold her head up. “When I took her to see the doctor, I was really worried,” remembers the 42 year-old. “During the examination, the doctor noticed that Ariana was very flexible. I was told my daughter had hypotonia and that she wasn’t going to be like other kids.”

Ariana was diagnosed with benign congenital hypotonia at the age of one. It’s a neuromuscular disorder that causes low muscle tone in all areas of the body, making everyday activities, such as crawling, walking and even feeding, more difficult. “It was so scary because we weren’t even sure if she was ever going to be able to walk,” says Cardoso.

After undergoing intensive physical therapy, Ianniciello started walking when she was two and a half years old. But her condition caused her to lose her balance frequently, resulting in countless dislocations. “Ariana’s doctor referred us to the Shriners Hospital because there was nothing more they could do for her. She was in a lot of pain. But when we met with Dr. Perron and her team, we knew we were in good hands,” explains Cardoso.

At the Shriners, Ianniciello was given orthoses for her flat feet and underwent additional physiotherapy. Two years ago, after complaining of lower back pain, Ianniciello was diagnosed with scoliosis. She now sleeps with a brace strapped around her waist every night to treat the condition.

But, despite all this, the teen has managed to stay grounded and positive. She credits her love of music and singing with helping her deal with the challenges in her life. “When I feel hurt or down, I sing. I just put on some music and I’ll connect and cry to it, and it makes me feel better,” she says.

Cardoso, says her daughter found her voice pretty early on. “I remember when she was about 18 months old, she used to love the song ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt. She would constantly sing it. She wasn’t able to walk yet, but she was certainly able to make her voice heard,” laughs Cardoso.

Channeling her emotions through song has proven quite rewarding for Ianniciello. She took home the top prize at the Super Fantastico singing competition in 2017 and has been performing at countless events in and around Montreal. Ianniciello has also recently teamed up with Charles Vaccaro, a local musician and manager, to work on some music of her own. “We’re working on writing some songs for an album. One of the songs we’ve written is an anti-bullying anthem called ‘Warriors.’ It’s something I think a lot of people can relate to,” she explains. “I’ve got so many projects going on, a lot to look forward to. I’m so excited.”