CRAIG GRAU: The brass butterfly - The Explorer: Sports

CRAIG GRAU: The brass butterfly

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Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:04 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Before Jane Toriello plays in this weekend’s downtown U.S. Tennis Association national tournament, she must ward off her toughest rival.

For more than two decades, Toriello has parried lupus — the autoimmune disorder whose myriad symptoms range from fatigue to psychosis — with her love for the courts.

As luck would dictate, a long dormant stretch crashed last week when she came down with infectious shingles that threatened to enter her lungs.

“I was doing so well for a while,” Toriello said. “Then I thought, ‘Oh no, this can’t happen before nationals.’”

Toriello’s journey unfolded in 1981, when she first developed lupus’ drug-induced variant while working as a surgical technician. She pushed the disease into remission until 1995, when doctors hospitalized her following a bout of severe headaches.

Sinus infection at worst, she figured.

Toriello learned she’d contracted spinal meningitis, a brain infection where mortality rates run up to 40 percent.

Like a hustler honed to cheat death, she beat the odds. Six months later, Toriello’s immune system caved into toxic shock syndrome, only to recover again.

Blood vessels in Toriello’s legs hardened and scarred in 1999, a condition called necrotizing vasculitis that temporarily kept her from walking.

On the mend, her zealous tennis activity led her to blow an ACL during a family vacation — one day after beating her Salpointe varsity son in a tournament.

“I probably shouldn’t have been playing, but it was like everything else had been taken from me,” she said.

The ardor Toriello rode to court’s edge has benefitted others fighting alongside.

As the Lupus Foundation of Southern Arizona’s board president, Toriello promotes physical activity as a wonder for the 1.5 million Americans hit by some form of the disease.

“You’ve got to go out, take care of yourself and exercise. The disease is horrible, but if you fight mentally, you will feel better,” Toriello said.

Hard to argue with the sunlight cure’s poster child — especially when UV light causes skin irritation for many sufferers. But full-time court work shows on Toriello’s team record.

The “Bionic Butterflies” — named for Lupus’ classic butterfly-shaped facial rash, and the team’s donations to related charities — have gone 7-0 on their season’s match totals.

In Toriello’s case, courage wears fresh stripes, said team co-captain Mariane Brennan, who’s played with the Brass Butterfly for three years now.

“It shows when people have a real desire or determination to do something, age, disability or illness are irrelevant,” Brennan said.

Determination is key to make USTA’s nationals with Toriello’s hands. Given lupus’ penchant for ravaging the joints, she’s already had the bones in both thumbs fused.

El Conquistador tennis director Jennifer Fuchs doctored the grip on Toriello’s racquet to accommodate her grasp. Working with Toriello, Fuchs began hosting lupus benefits, once raising $25,000 in a night for Toriello’s stem cell transplant.

“There are no words for Jane Toriello,” Fuchs said. “If there is the slightest chance, she’ll be there.”

Toriello spent part of Monday night at the tournament’s Randolph Tennis Center home, watching her teammates play — and hitting a few balls herself.

Antibiotics rendered her shingles incommunicable, Toriello said on Tuesday morning. Now she hopes doctors will decide Wednesday to remove the drip line that delivers her medications.

It’s Friday or never. Joint replacement surgery looms for Toriello’s hands in the near future, making this her last shot at a top-tier dream.

“I’m a fighter and I’m not going to let it beat me.” Toriello said. “I’m going to get strong enough to play.”

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