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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    Videll's story has taught her, and should teach us all, to be thankful

    Sophia Videll poses for a family photo. (Courtesy of Videll family)

    It is customary in many households, evoking the understated gravity of gratitude over attitude, to go around the table Thanksgiving Day, sharing life blessings with friends and family. Maybe the one time of year we all, even if fleetingly so, live through the concept of grace.

    But even the most appreciative of us may unwittingly miss the greatest gift, the one New London's Sophia Videll understands better than virtually anyone else her age. Or any other age.


    Simple, priceless, exquisite life.

    "I don't get mad at a lot of people," Videll was saying one day last month. "But if my friends are complaining a lot, I'll say, 'Stop. You actually have a lot.'"

    They do. Many of us do. But perhaps it requires Videll's story to awaken us.

    Videll, 15, is a sophomore at St. Bernard. She recently completed her soccer season, the starting sweeper for the Saints, who made the state tournament. Her look, blond and bubbly, belies her good fortune that she's still living at all.

    Videll spent the first six months of her life in the pediatric cancer ward at Yale-New Haven Hospital, battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. It was eight months before she could eat. Her parents, Christine and Gordon, watched other kids die almost routinely.

    They saw their little girl vomit blood, battle a fungal infection and fight rhythmic rounds of chemotherapy, the thing she needed to live ... that still might kill her. Christine didn't leave the hospital until October — Sophia was born in May of 2003 — and contorted her body in such a way trying to sleep next to her daughter that she needed back surgery before she could leave Yale, too.

    "About 150 babies a year in the country get it. Most need bone marrow transplants," Christine said. "They need heavy duty chemo. It's so difficult. We were with kids who were older and whose kidneys would shut down because bodies can't process it. We weren't sure if she'd need dialysis. Would she be able to process all the chemotherapy agents? It was just insane.

    "You don't want to put your child through this, but you have to. We brought all her bedding from her room and had her baby-hood right there in the hospital. She was just lying there with all these tubes. It was a blessing in disguise that she was that so young because she wasn't yet mobile."


    Sophia's birth filled her parents with the inherent joys of new life. Now think about the irony, perhaps tragically so, how their little girl's plight put them face to face with death, too.

    Life and death. Death and life. On the band played, every strenuous day.

    "It's destructive in a lot of ways because it becomes the sole focus of everything," Gordon Videll said. "To see what happened to people around us was really difficult. We're there and kids aren't making it. A horrible experience. But within a week, we were buying the entire floor pizza. It became like a family."

    And this is where the Vidells have earned an enviable perspective. There's a clarity that comes through crossroads, a blueprint for living life that emerges from fear and thrives through inspiration.

    "People would come in and out for their chemo and ask about Sophia. 'Is that baby still here?'" Christine said. "But soon (by December), Sophia was doing better and coming in and out. Those same people were staying. It was heartbreaking. There's so much guilt. For a long time. Sophia was probably the sickest kid on the floor. Then when she wasn't anymore, we felt horrible for the other kids, who were being rushed to the ICU because their organs were shutting down."

    Then Christine's voice began to teeter as she said, "I can't understand why some kids make it and some kids don't. I think prayer helped us a lot. I don't know if God just heard us or chose to give us a break. I will say that with some of the friends Sophia has made and the people that came into our lives have been a blessing. I don't know if it happened for a reason, but beautiful things happen in bad places."

    Beautiful things happen in bad places.

    Like this beautiful thing for the Vidells: Sophia has become a regular at Camp Rising Sun, a nurturing environment for kids fighting cancer. And while she finds a certain freedom playing soccer — out there running around with her friends for a common cause — there is a certain vocation that comes through her time at Camp Rising Sun.

    "I love Camp Rising Sun so much," Sophia Videll said. "That's where I've met so many friends and people who understand you. You do fun things there, but the real fun for me is meeting people. No one else gets it. When you go back to reality, no one understands. You go to camp, you are normal. But here, you're 'the kid who had cancer.'"

    Or at least this: The kid who beat it.

    "One of the kids who was in the hospital with Sophia, she was like 11 or 12 at the time," Christine said, "touched our hearts. Her dad worked in a restaurant and her mom couldn't drive. They're Egyptian. So she was there by herself a lot. We kind of adopted her.

    "Sophia goes to camp and says 'Mom, I can't wait for you to meet my counselor.' When I did, I realized it was the same girl, Nadia. She said, 'you don't know who I am, do you?' She's 19 now. So beautiful. Last time I saw her she was 70 pounds and bald. Now here she is. Beautiful. We still talk once a week. Like a big sister to Sophia."

    Beautiful things happen in bad places.

    Maybe that's why the Vidells can't talk enough about Marissa Walker, a college kid now, who spent much of her childhood battling osteosarcoma, bone cancer. Walker became an angel of inspiration in Waterford and throughout the region and state.

    "When Sophia found out that I knew Marissa's parents (Pete and Kari)," Gordon Videll said, "she was so excited. It was like we knew a rock star."


    Perspective often comes with a price. The Vidells know. They've become pretty versed at seeing pettiness, especially around the games kids play.

    "Some kids you see are worried about not starting or what number they get on their jersey," Christine said. "Sophia came home last year and kind of vented. 'Oh my God, they're fighting over what jersey numbers they got. Mom, it's so freaking stupid. Who cares?' But this is the day to day reality. You have to play the game of life."

    Sophia: "When I'm in school, I cannot stand when people complain about the dumbest things. At camp, no one complains, then you come back here, everyone complains. I get it. I complain about dumb things too. But there's a bigger picture. And you realize how fortunate you are for what you have.

    "I feel lucky because I don't remember being sick or any of it. I still get to do all this stuff. I remember doing the Make-a-Wish things and going to camp and meeting all these people. But I don't remember being sick. I've been told it was very bad. I'm very lucky. I don't have that much wrong with me. But some of my friends have fake eyes and fake legs. Sick kids can look at me and maybe think, 'I can be like her one day.' I can look like that and think that's kinda cool."

    She's a thankful kid in this season of thanks, that Sophia Videll. Just the kid we need to hear from as we start schlepping around stores and malls, losing our patience.

    "She was a baby and doesn't remember a lot of it, but it's part of her life," Gordon Videll said. "There are two places you believe in God. One is a foxhole. The other is a children's oncology ward. You don't really have a choice."


    St. Bernard's Sophia Videll (7) and Taina Quinones (8) defend against Montville's Michaela MacCracken (13) during a girls' soccer game on Oct. 15. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    In this file photo from April 26, 2011, the Videll family, from left, Christine, Sophia, 8, Savas, 4 and Gordon shown at their home in New London. (Tim Cook/The Day)
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