‘Light Up a Life’ Gives Dying Teen a Goal

Times Staff Writer

All things considered, it has been an emotional month for Matt Verville, 18, of Mission Viejo.

First, the terminally ill cancer patient learned that he had been chosen to light a special 35-foot Christmas tree in front of the Visiting Nurse Assn. building in Orange next Monday evening. Matt was selected to set aglow hundreds of lights, each light honoring a friend or family member and representing a donation to VNA Hospice, a nonprofit agency that cares for the terminally ill in their own homes.

Then Matt learned that the Starlight Foundation, which grants wishes to terminally ill persons, had granted his wish to visit Hawaii, where he was born. A Starlight representative is scheduled to present Matt with airline tickets for him and his family during the lighting ceremonies.


“He has really been looking forward to all of this,” said Jean Verville, Matt’s mother. “It just made him feel good that something good was happening, and it made us feel good. It brought a glitter to his face and his life.”

The glitter, however, had faded earlier this week.

Unable to eat or keep liquids down, including the liquid morphine he was taking to ease the pain in his leg and pelvic area, Matt had become dehydrated.

On Tuesday night he was taken by ambulance to Mission Viejo Community Hospital.

Although Matt spent a comfortable night at the hospital, his parents were still unsure Wednesday whether he will feel well enough to make it to either the tree-lighting ceremony on Monday or the trip to Hawaii on Tuesday.

“Everything is really up in the air,” his mother said. “It all depends on how he feels. If he’s able to go to the tree-lighting ceremony, he will. If not, someone from my family will represent my son.”

Matt had just finished his junior year at Silverado High School in July, 1984, when he was diagnosed as having osteogenic sarcoma, a highly malignant bone tumor most common in people between the ages of 10 and 20.

“He had been complaining of leg pains,” said Matt’s father, Marine Sgt. Maj. Thaddeus Verville, during an interview at their home Tuesday afternoon. “But he figured it was a minor injury and, like a kid, shrugged it off.”


A month after the diagnosis, Matt’s leg was amputated. He has since undergone numerous chemotherapy treatments that cause him to lose his hair.

‘Handled It Courageously’

“I think he handled it very courageously,” Jean Verville said. “To see him not want a wig and walk without the prosthesis and let people accept him for what he really is--I feel that is really courageous.”

Her son’s spirits, she said, “sometimes are up, sometimes down. But basically he came to the acceptance stage of his cancer. He has his sense of humor back and that was the way I knew him before.”

She smiled: “It’s really nice. Even though he’s dying . . . we can laugh about certain things.”

Jean Verville, a bubbly woman with an infectious laugh, has found she is also able to laugh with Vera Lang, the VNA Hospice volunteer who began coming to the house in September.

Lang is one of 183 VNA Hospice volunteers who have served 325 patients in Orange County this year. The nonprofit organization, whose Light Up a Life fund-raising campaign goal is $25,000, supplies the terminally ill and their families with specialized nursing care, home health aides, physical and occupational therapists and volunteer services.


‘She’s Always There’

“Vera and I can kid around with each other and she’s always there when I need her,” Jean Verville said. “It’s really kind of nice to know that there’s somebody like Vera who can help us fulfill our needs to make it go easier.”

Lang and Matt, she added, “have gotten pretty close.”

“Matt is a marvelous young person,” said Lang, who has been a VNA Hospice volunteer for nine years. “He’s got a neat sense of humor. When I consider how much pain he’s dealing with, the child absolutely amazes me. He smiles and says: ‘Vera, Vera, come here. Give me a hug.’ Maybe it’s not so much that he needs a hug, maybe I do. He’s so sensitive to everyone around him and their needs.”

It was during one talk with Matt in October that Lang learned of his desire to visit Hawaii. His wish, as his mother says, “is to see the sunrise and the sunset, and the place where he was born and the place where he will be put to rest.”

“We were talking,” Lang recalled, “and he had said that last June or July they had planned on a trip to Hawaii but then he got so bad and had to spend a lot of time in the hospital. He was really disappointed he didn’t get to go. So I got to thinking, ‘Well, let’s see. . . . “

Foundation Granted Wish

Lang contacted the Starlight Foundation, which granted Matt’s wish. Matt, along with his parents and two of his four sisters, are scheduled to leave next Tuesday. And Lang will be accompanying them.

“Matt kept saying: ‘You’ve got to go,’ ” said Lang. “I had a lot of mixed feelings about it because I think it’s a family thing.”


Lang said she finally bought a ticket on the same flight “because I want to be with Matt, and because I want to watch that sunrise and sunset.”

At the time she contacted the Starlight Foundation, Lang said, “Matt was picking up again. They got the pain under control, he was walking around on his crutches and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done.”

But he was sick when he returned home from the hospital two weeks ago after undergoing chemotherapy. And because he was unable to keep down his liquid morphine, the pain once again became unmanageable.

‘A Helpless Feeling’

“Just to see him suffer and not be able to move, it’s just a helpless feeling,” his mother said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day after being admitted to Mission Community Hospital, Matt felt well enough to talk to a reporter from his hospital bed.

In fact, the slim, dark-haired teen-ager with a wispy mustache and goatee seemed in relatively good spirits, quietly joking with Lang and his mother that “I can’t keep this smile forever” as a photographer took numerous pictures of them.


“I’m feeling better,” he said. “Hopefully, my doctor is going to get everything under control so I can go to Hawaii. I’m not going to lose hope. A lot of determination might get me there.”

As for the tree-lighting ceremony on Monday, he said: “It’s sort of disappointing when you think I might not make it. As long as I keep my hopes up and pray, I might get to do it. I might have to do it in a wheelchair. . . .

‘The Best I Can Do’

“Leave it all in God’s hands, that’s the best I can do.”

On Tuesday, Jean Verville had said how thankful she and her husband are--for the support of their four daughters and the compassion of strangers who have offered their prayers, which, she said, “keeps lifting Matt and the family up.”

“All we can ask for right now is prayers,” she said. “I really feel of upmost importance is (that) we believe in God, and that really made the way for us through our struggles. God really pulled us through this until now. He sent us the right people at the right time.”

She said she is also thankful for two of her son’s best friends, Bobby Thompson and Paul Sherburne.

“I have never seen such courage in two boys,” she said. “They have been with Matt from the beginning of this. They were patient and gave him a lot of understanding. Matt had somebody to share his feelings with, friends who didn’t run out on him.”


VNA Program Praised

She also praises the VNA Hospice program.

“The hospice program is a very good program and they have very compassionate people,” she said. “Right now my greatest wish is that they hit their (fund-raising) goal.

“My son and I discussed dying, and his wish was he would want to die at home, and without this hospice program and the VNA nurse coming down, I couldn’t fulfill his wish.”

Matt’s mother smiled.

“We may not have one wish (going to Hawaii) fulfilled, but at least we have the other wish. Through VNA Hospice we are able to keep our son home to die.”