Fearless Sister Duo Finding Hope
April LuFriu and Melissa Escobio are sisters and best friends who do just about everything together, including having retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
Sisters April LuFriu and Melissa Escobio are best friends who do everything together. They live with their families in Tampa, Florida, enjoy traveling to new places, and are fearless about new experiences. They also both have retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
In 1989, Melissa was diagnosed with RP at the age of 21. Melissa was the first in their family to receive this diagnosis, so she felt totally blindsided by the news. So in 2006, Melissa and April decided to seek out others affected with blinding diseases and found the Foundation Fighting Blindness. The sister duo created and formed the Tampa Bay Chapter for the Foundation Fighting Blindness and April serves as the president and Melissa serves as the vice president.
Then, in 2010, April, along with her ten-year-old son Brandon, and six-year-old daughter Savannah, were all diagnosed with RP, specifically X-linked RP (XLRP).
“It was devasting to find out my children are affected, but I always had my sister to support me,” says April. “And I had the Foundation to help guide me too, so I never felt alone.”
April’s RP is mild and doesn’t affect her day-to-day vision, while her children's and Melissa's RP are progressing more quickly. So to help April cope, she decided to start competing in pageants, which she used to do when she was young adult.
At first, it wasn’t easy, but April wanted to use the platform to help raise awareness and funds for diseases like RP. And in 2011, April won the Mrs. Florida America pageant. Six weeks later, she competed in the Mrs. America pageant and won again. Following that was Mrs. World 2012, where she won yet again.
“I had the right purpose, and I just stayed true to myself,” says April. “All I did was talk about my kids, blindness, and supporting the community, which seemed to resonate with the judges. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I had during my reign to spread awareness, and I couldn’t have done it without my family by my side.”
It’s clear April is a go-getter, and with Melissa by her side, they’re both unstoppable and adventurous when trying new things. They recently flew in a helicopter with no doors over New York City and hiked in Sedona, Arizona, and April helps to narrate to Melissa what she may not be able to see herself.
“You can’t let your diagnosis stop you, you have to just keep going, and you can still live a full life,” says Melissa. “I never look down on my diagnosis. We all have our moments, it can be upsetting, but I don’t dwell on it, and I keep living my dreams.”
Melissa’s risk-taking attitude also led her to participate in a stem cell clinical trial at the University of California, Irvine, in 2018.
“I’m so grateful I was able to be a part of this trial, and it was a wonderful experience,” says Melissa. “It was a lot, though, and I had some side effects to the medications, so I decided not to go forward with my left eye. But I see a slight improvement in my right eye compared to the left, and the progression seems to have slowed.”
April’s son Brandon is also currently participating in the AGTC gene therapy clinical trial for XLRP. Brandon’s first eye surgery was in February 2020, and he is now being monitored. Melissa and April found out about both trials through the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
“The Foundation got our foot in the door,” says April. “We’re daring to be pioneers and jump in. You can’t live in fear, and you just have to trust the science. And we’ve gotten so much hope from the Foundation.”
In the last year, April and Melissa have become the Foundation’s Tampa Bay Chapter President and Vice President. On June 9, 2022, they helped to launch a brand-new event called Tampa Wine & Dine for Sight, where they raised over $106,000 for the Foundation.
“RP has made me acknowledge all the great things in life and not overlook the simple things we take for granted,” says April. “I feel like my life has a purpose, thanks to RP. And even though it’s a tough road, I’ve learned more gratitude, strength, and humility.”