Gallery: Gina [2 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Anne Batty
From the time she was very young, San Clementean Gina Fridella Cousineau knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. And upon attending UCSD and meeting her future husband, Mark, her dream of becoming a wife and raising a family soon became a reality.
“I grew up in a boisterous and loving Italian family,” Gina shared. “My parents were both Italian, and it was loud in my house …. a lot of yelling but lots of loving. Everything we did revolved around family, and being a wife and mother and having a close knit family was my greatest goal.”
Building upon the foundation of a loving upbringing spearheaded by two great role models, and joining in partnership with a devoted and committed spouse, Cousineau was well on her way to living out her dream. And it wasn’t long before the couple’s union produced four happy, fun-loving children, Mary, Derek, and twins Alaina and Evan, and just as she had hoped … life was turning out exactly as planned.
While raising her family Gina continued her education, obtaining an AA in culinary arts and a BS in dietetics. Always interested in fitness she started her career by developing a satellite fitness program entitled Kicks 4 Two - establishing programs at various locations in south county - and in spite of having fertility issues of her own, she also became a mentor and fitness consultant for pre-natal and post partum moms.
When Fitness Elite for Women opened its doors in north San Clemente in 1994, Cousineau taught fitness classes there, eventually becoming director of Personal Training. She has been a fitness professional for close to 30 years now.
“Although things were going very well in my life, exactly the way I had pictured them,” Gina explained, “I had this uneasy feeling, a foreboding, like something bad was coming.”
Upon receiving the news that her sister had terminal breast cancer, Cousineau thought this must be the black cloud she felt looming over her, but as bad as this news and the eventual loss of her sister was; the worst was yet to come.
It has been said that when tragedy strikes it can either break you or remake you and when Gina Fridella Cousineau lost her 9-year-old son, Evan, to adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD – a progressive genetic disease); in spite of experiencing one of life’s greatest sorrows she somehow found the strength deep within to choose the latter.
But make no mistake; the journey that finally took her out of the darkness and into the light wasn’t an easy one.
Facing a diagnosis of no treatment, no cure, and a horrific death in 6-12 months, the only hope for Evan was a bone marrow transplant. With no match among his three siblings, a match from the national donor registry was their only option. Fortunately, two cord blood matches were found, and the treatment was to take place in Minnesota. For five months, the Ronald McDonald House became the family’s home away from home, and it was during that wait that Gina began contemplating a new life, searching for something positive in the midst of the negatives now facing the family. Thus the seed for a foundation to help save lives was planted.
Evan’s treatment included blood transfusions, chemotherapy, radiation, and eventually a transplant. Things went well, the disease was halted, and despite a few physical side effects requiring some adjustments, life could go on. But unfortunately as sometimes happens with transplants a secondary infection set in, and although Evan fought it for three months, in 2007 the day before his 10th birthday he eventually succumbed.
“Flying home with the family on the twins’ birthday, I had no idea how to go on,” Cousineau shared, “I just wanted the plane to go down so the pain would go away.”
For the first nine months after her son’s death Gina says she could barely function and couldn’t stand to be alone. She needed someone with her constantly, and that without that companionship from family and friends, Mark’s love, support and determination to keep the family together, as well as some group therapy sessions … she wouldn’t be in the place she is today.
As a dietician and fitness professional Cousineau’s life had always been focused on helping others. When this tragedy forced her to live through some of the oft-touted stages of loss (denial, anger, depression) - in order to move toward acceptance, she finally understood she had to give up the dream of a perfect life, and take herself in a new direction. And it would be her passion to help others that would be key in returning her to the land of the living.
Personal experience and time spent with families in distress gave Gina firsthand knowledge of the importance of donor banks - blood, bone marrow, cord blood, organs - for saving lives. Realizing that no one with serious health deficiencies has hope without these donations, she decided it was her mission to form a foundation with Evan as the catalyst to helping others. Naming it … Be a Hero Become a Donor … it was her involvement in the development of this foundation that would play the most significant part in her recovery.
While Cousineau began putting Be a Hero together, she learned more and more about the how, why and results of sharing vital resources through donation, further igniting her passion and efforts to get the message out. She began by sharing her story and her new-found knowledge with anyone and everyone who would listen. Using power point presentations, she spoke to schools, churches, organizations, therapy groups and more, encouraging them to donate and host donor events. She even engineered a life-saving event, complete with a bloodmobile available for donations and bone marrow registry, as a way to celebrate her 45th birthday. The number of donors that resulted from that event made her realize that one grieving mother could impact a village, and that she could actually be the one to help people across the country to understand and figure it out.
Tirelessly continuing to make that happen via her physical involvement, her foundation and the use of social media, Gina has created a network of volunteers carrying the torch across the nation. Forging drives and creating events that are not only raising awareness; with the focus on recruiting bone marrow donors, these volunteers are securing thousands of blood, cord blood and organ/tissue donations as well.
Referring to herself as a “Jane of all Trades,” along with her continuing efforts to fill blood, bone marrow, cord blood and organ donor banks, Gina continues to find time to mentor others in healthy living. As a life coach of sorts she encourages people via fitness classes, personal training, and with healthy cooking videos and podcasts entitled “Mama G’s Kitchen,” on Facebook and at FueledbyRealFood on YouTube.
Sharing Gina’s passion, the other Cousineau family members are also finding ways to honor Evan and turn this tragedy into triumph. Her oldest daughter, Mary, has donated her kidney to a child the family encountered at Ronald McDonald House during Evan’s ordeal. Following mom’s lead, she has chosen a life of helping others as a Critical Care Nurse. Derek and Alaina have been instrumental in forming a Be a Hero branch of the foundation at San Clemente High School, participating in the organization and promotion of three drives annually to raise awareness and encourage donors. And beside them all is their Rock of Gibraltar, Mark, the breadwinner, steadfastly supporting and holding the family together, the boulder upon whom they all continue to stand.
To find out more about Gina and her foundation or to find out more information about becoming a donor, visit beaherobecomeadonor.org