A mother's devotion to her disabled daughter

Story highlights

  • Alessandro Rampazzo documented a mother's devotion to her disabled daughter
  • He photographed other families as well for his ongoing project, "When we are gone"

(CNN)A single photo assignment for a newspaper in his hometown of Padova, Italy, opened photographer Alessandro Rampazzo's eyes to the story of a mother's devotion to her disabled daughter.

Maria and her husband, Antonio, were deeply in love. She called him Toni as an endearment. They tried to live their dreams in Switzerland, but when it didn't work out, they returned to their home country of Italy and started their family together.
But things didn't go according to plan. Antonio grew ill and died a few months after their daughter, Tonina, was born during the 1960s.
Maria was left to take care of three daughters by herself. And by age 3, Tonina was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.
Alessandro Rampazzo
In January 2015, Tonina wrote a letter to the newspaper when the public transportation she used to reach a recreational center in the city suddenly stopped. It was where she could do activities with other people who also had muscular dystrophy.
The bus had been equipped to carry wheelchairs. And then, Tonina ran out of options. Rampazzo took a photograph for the paper and then asked if he could continue to tell the story of Tonina and Maria through images.
Only about a month before, he had read about the fact there was no law concerning the destiny of people who weren't able to take care of themselves when their families were no longer able to do so.
"Discovering this reality for me was shocking and I decided I had to give a voice to these people, to their stories, to hopefully generate more awareness and understanding of the situation," Rampazzo said.
"Despite the difficulties of being a mother and widow in the '60s, in Italy, Maria was able to raise her daughters and still take care of Tonina for all her life, alone, with her own energy and strength. All these things together move my heart every time I think about it."
He was soon met with the reality of the challenges that fill their daily lives.
There are cranes in the bathroom and the bedroom that Maria uses to help Tonina, because she lacks muscle strength to do things on her own. Tonina can't eat quickly, so Maria makes sure that a double-bottomed dish with hot water keeps the food warm. Cold food poses a risk to Tonina because it's more difficult to digest.
Tonina also likes to read in bed, but if the book is new and stiff, she doesn't have the strength to hold it open. Maria stretches them out for her. And every night, at least two to three times, Maria wakes up to turn Tonina from one side to the other so she doesn't develop bedsores.
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Not only was Rampazzo moved by Maria's devotion, but also Tonina's upbeat personality.
"Tonina has been dealing with her illness for all her life without giving up, without being sad," Rampazzo said. "If you meet her, she's always smiling and in a good mood, even if things are quite complicated for her."
They also welcomed Rampazzo into their lives. Maria even asked him what he would like for dinner during the evenings he was there. They opened their hearts to him and made him feel like family. No one had ever asked them about their experiences.
"The first time I showed this story to some friends, their reaction was, 'I had no idea that people could live like this, in 2015, in Italy.' Images, in my opinion, have a great virtue: They are able to show exactly what happened."
He began photographing other families as well for his ongoing project, "When we are gone." He became a photojournalist in his 20s because he wanted to use photography to give a voice to those who didn't feel like they had one.
"Spending time with Maria and Tonina, and the other families I portrayed, it really opened my eyes to a situation that involves hundreds of thousands of families in Italy," Rampazzo said. "I learned how important is the love of a family, and what it can do."