Author: Scott Spolverino, former Starlight Kid
My name is Scott. I live in New York. I am 31 years old and I have had, on average, a surgery every year that I have walked this earth. I was born two months early and dead, with an umbilical cord wrapped around my neck three times. Doctors had to give me CPR because I was blue. I had my first surgery at three weeks old to repair massive congenital renal and urological abnormalities. I have spent months, if not years, of time in a hospital. I have seen and heard my fellow patients die. I have experienced pain beyond what a rational mind can comprehend. I was born into a crucible and forged by life; the operating table my anvil and the surgeon's tool the hammer. I was shaped into a human by pain, fear, and lack of choice to become that what I am today. But I am here today. Thanks to the Starlight Children's Foundation.
Were it not for Starlight, I might not be writing this. As a child, the concept of suicide is different. The intrusive thoughts aren't of actions but rather of vagaries. There are no plans, that's beyond the capacity of someone so young. It's just a nagging thought in the back of the mind that says, “All this boredom, all this pain, all this fear...I don't want to do it anymore.” When your world is constant sleep deprivation, uncontrolled pain, fear, confusion, and lack of agency, these thoughts are bound to come up. These days, hospitals have embraced the science behind distraction; rooms are private, have televisions, have WiFi. But when I was young, there were barely any televisions and, if there were, you had to pay to use them by the day. There were books, occasionally music from a boombox, and endless tedium.
Now, we realize the importance of distraction therapy in children, and how cognitive and behavioral interventions can help not only reduce perceived pain but also time in the hospital. But when I was in the hospital, the only saving grace I had was a gargantuan purple and grey cart with a CRT television set in it. As a child, there was no escaping the instant recognition of the Nintendo emblem. But it was not like anything I had seen before. I had friends that had the Nintendo NES but this was...different. I remember the first time the nurses asked if I wanted to play some video games. My first reaction was one of almost incredulity. How could I play games here? But when the Starlight Gaming console came in, my reaction changed from confusion to pure elation. That bulky cart, with one of the wheels permanently skewing the cart to the left, was heaved in. It slid over the top of the hospital bed and, with a quick flick, a compartment opened to reveal a NES with controllers and a light gun. The cartridges were few, but I didn't need much. With light gun in hand, I played Duck Hunt for almost three hours. Duck Hunt isn't a very complicated game. Even taking into account the serious dosage of morphine in me, you wouldn't think it would entertain a child for so long. But I was playing for reasons beyond entertainment. I was playing for escape. Controller in hand, the horrors around me melted away. The pain lessened to a point where I no longer needed a morphine drip. The dark thoughts...disappeared.
My interactions with Starlight Gaming didn't end with the NES. Being in the hospital was what I spent most of my free time doing so I saw its evolution. The NES was replaced with the Super NES and Yoshi's Island kept the demons from consuming me. Eventually the Starlight Gaming console [CO1] was replaced by a more modern one but one still familiar. Grey and purple, emblazoned with the Nintendo label on it but with a bigger screen and an N64. I became an expert at Donkey Kong Country. Soaring from launcher barrel to launcher barrel made me giggle or groan, depending on how good my aim was. They were sounds that a kid should be making, but my parents and doctors saw so rarely escape from my lips.
Eventually my medical situation stabilized and by the time I needed surgery again I had aged out of the children's hospital. What once was Westchester Medical Center's Children's Hospital became the Maria Fareri Children's Hospital at Westchester Medical. Naturally, I had to peek into the hospital to see how much had changed. The systems that Starlight continued to provide were miracles of technology. The bulky carts of my youth were sleek, extremely portable units with the latest consoles and a game selection akin to the Library of Alexandria. Some of them even had virtual reality units. I couldn't help but smile and shed a tear. I hoped that these kids would have an easier time than I did, all thanks to the Starlight Children's Foundation.
I say all of this not to discourage you, nor to scare you. It is simply my past; the foundation on which I have built a life on. And I have built a life. Despite my inhospitable entrance to life, I survived. Despite the agony and anxiety, I thrived. I grew, I went to school. I got a Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering. I received a Masters of Science in Brewing and Distilling Science. Were it not for Starlight’s gift to the hospital, I don't know if I could have made it. I don't know if I would have become stable enough, mentally, to fight my diseases and illnesses to the point that I overcame them to accomplish what I have accomplished. Their game systems taught me that, even though I had a half-dozen tubes running in or out of me, I could still be a kid. I could be normal, at least in some aspect. I could derive joy from the circumstances that I was born into. I still play video games for the same reason I did as a kid. I'm still railing against the immovable force that are the diseases that I will carry with me forever. All because Starlight taught me to persevere.
During my studies, I learned that in winemaking, the best wines don't come from perfect grapes. They come from grapes that are planted in rough, rocky soil. They come from grapes left in the hot sun and then subjected to the bitter embrace of cold at night. They are intentionally left unwatered. All of these stresses, these struggles, give the grape flavor. They give the grape complexity. And those grapes yield the best wine. Just like me.
If you have it in your heart, I encourage you to give happiness this holiday season and donate to Starlight today. I could never thank the donors enough for placing those gaming systems in my hospital. They thought they were just providing video games to children, but in reality, they saved my life.