How A Dying Teen’s Last Wish Inspired This CRE Exec To Make A Difference For Sick Kids
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Abbi Saperstein sat in his plane seat during a trip from Los Angeles to New York. His eyes welled up. He choked back tears. His hands were lightly trembling.
Staring at his phone, Saperstein had finished reading a story about a dying teen’s last wish: Timothy Bourbeau, a 17-year-old from Virginia who died in April after a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer, had wished for video game systems to be set up in patient's rooms at hospitals to help kids and young adults take their minds off the pain from their treatments.
“It blew me away. I was touched,” said Saperstein, a 37-year-old vice president at Kidder Mathews specializing in multi-tenant retail for the Los Angeles market and based in Century City. “Here’s a kid with cancer and rather than spend his last wish on a trip to Disney World or something else, he’d rather give back to the same kids with cancer he spent time with.
“That’s when it hit me,” Saperstein said. “I had to do something. I wanted to give back.”
He scrolled down to the comments section of the news story and by chance found a way to help.
A person who said they were a nurse at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles had commented about also wishing that the hospital had more video game systems for patients. The gaming units, housed in a medical-grade container, are on a rolling cart and come with a monitor and controllers.
Saperstein contacted the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and after consulting with his accountant donated $20K to the cause. He is now raising an additional $20K.
“I just want them to buy as many of these video game units as possible,” Saperstein said. “I totally understand the pain and loneliness Tim went through. My dad went through something similar.”
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Director of Development Julie Halverson-Godson, who had reached out to Saperstein, said the donation will provide more resources for patients and make tremendous impacts on their lives.
“Child Life services are not covered by insurance,” Halverson-Godson wrote in an email to Bisnow. “The program relies on philanthropy to deliver the lifelong benefits of reducing trauma and pain from hospitalization with play.”
Saperstein said he and the Children's Hospital Los Angeles have a goal of providing at least 10 of these video game units for patients.
Tammy Bourbeau described her son, Timothy, her first boy and second-oldest of her five children, as a selfless, giving and courageous teenager.
Born in Florida, Timothy started playing video games when he was 3 years old, she said in a phone conversation.
"You know those gaming units that just plug onto the TV? That was his first experience," Bourbeau said. "He loved video games."
Timothy was a science fiction fan and a locally published short story writer. He loved to play basketball, too, she said.
In 2016, Tammy began noticing that something was off. Timothy started developing flu-like symptoms and later rapidly losing weight.
"It was the most bizarre thing," she said. "It went on for eight weeks. We thought he had the flu and then it kind of went away ... then he got sick again and started losing more weight. He looked pale and wasn't himself."
Doctors finally diagnosed Timothy in October 2016 with Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of cancerous tumor in the bones.
"He had a 20% chance of survival but the cancer was already in the metastatic stage," she said. "It had spread to his lungs and he had several tumors. It was a rapidly growing cancer."
"It was a nightmare," she said of hearing the diagnosis. "It still is."
During his one-and-a-half-year battle, Timothy went through a series of extensive chemotherapy. He must have spent nearly 300 days at the hospital, she said. In March 2017, he nearly died from an infection. He survived it but from that point on, he was in isolation.
"If you wanted to see him you have to be all gowned up," Tammy said. "A lot of times you can't come into the room. He was all by himself."
He had no real connection to the outside world and nothing to distract him from the pain he felt on a daily basis, she said.
There wasn't a lot of fun stuff for older kids or teenagers to do in their rooms.
"There's all this nastiness in hospitals," she said. "There's all these needles and poking and prodding, vomiting and diarrhea. These kids, they are stuck in their room. They can’t go anywhere, and teenagers, you know, get so depressed."
That is when Timothy had an idea.
"He said, 'Mom, wouldn't it be great if everyone had a permanent video game system in their room?' He wanted one in every room because as a patient you don't know what room you're going to be in."
He understood that many of the young patients in his hospital ward were also in the same situation.
When Timothy was in his terminal stages, Make-A-Wish asked him what he wanted. It took a year for him to decide, she said, but he wanted gaming systems for every room.
In March, the Mid-Atlantic Make-A-Wish foundation granted his wish. The foundation delivered 22 Playstation 4 gaming systems, loaded with games, to the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia.
Bourbeau said it was the first time a Make-A-Wish recipient in the Mid-Atlantic area gave away their wish to benefit others.
“We are all astonished and so inspired by the fact that you could have wished to go somewhere, meet someone, have something, you could have wished to be something, but instead you chose a very unique thing, which is to give your wish away and I think it's profoundly kind,” Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic Vice President of Marketing and Communications Tara Wilson-Jones said during the presentation, according to Fox News.
Timothy said the wish was his way of giving back.
"You know my faith is strong and I believe we're all put on this earth to do something great,” Timothy said. “I'm fulfilling that dream because I want this to not just be a part of Inova but I want this to be part of every oncology floor all across the U.S. and that's my dream and I want to make that happen."
Timothy died less than four weeks later. Tammy Bourbeau said the only time he played the video systems was when they were presented that day.
Why Video Games
Saperstein said when he read Timothy’s story he had a flashback of caring for his own father. In the late 1990s, when Saperstein was a teenager, his father was diagnosed with leukemia.
Saperstein remembers having to visit his father at the hospital and having to wear gloves and masks and not being able to fully interact with him. The days were long.
“It was extremely painful,” Saperstein said. “He was lonely. There’s nothing for him to do. Visitors come and go. You literally just sit there and watch whatever is on TV."
Imagine how much harder it is for kids, he said.
Saperstein said he hopes the game consoles can make the kids even marginally more comfortable, distracting them from the hospital.
Initially, Saperstein thought his $20K donation would suffice but he later found that it is not as easy as going on Amazon or a local toy store and buying as many video game consoles as the money can afford.
The consoles have to be housed in specially made medical-grade cases, Gamers Outreach Director of Marketing Ian Carr said.
Gamers Outreach is a Michigan-based nonprofit that has provided more than 200 video game units in hospitals across the nation. There are 18 at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Gamers Outreach is partnering with Saperstein and has donated about $3K to his cause.
Carr said these medical-grade video game kiosks, called GO Karts, which look like a computer monitor on a small kiosk with wheels, are portable and allow a nurse or hospital staff to easily transport them to a patient’s room or bedside.
While a traditional video game system such as an Xbox One, Playstation 4 or Nintendo Switch cost $200 to $400, to outfit it in this medical grade-housing container raises the cost to about $3,500, Carr said.
“We have to follow the hospital’s guidelines,” Carr said. “We have to make sure these units are clean, sterilized and that it doesn’t accumulate a lot of dust.”
Carr said the nonprofit works with hospital staff to decide the kinds of games that are available to play and what kind of internet access is allowed on these consoles. A volunteer network comes by on a regular basis to check on the units, update the consoles and perform other maintenance, he said.
He said these units have been anecdotally proven to help alleviate some of the loneliness and pain that kids feel when it comes to treatment.
In one case, he recalls, a child with a serious heart condition was kept in isolation for 10 months. The child had minimal contact with the outside world and was lonely and depressed.
When they brought in the mobile video game unit, the child was able to connect with friends through a game called Rocket League, Carr said.
In another case, a child with severe burns on his shoulder and left arm had required seven doctors and nurses to change out his bandages, Carr said. When they put a gaming unit in the child’s room, it served as a distraction from the pain. Only two doctors were needed — one to change out the bandages and another to help the kid play games with his other hand.
“Hospitals can be very isolating and doctors and nurses are there to be doctors and nurses,” Carr said. “Parents can’t spend every hour of every day at the hospital, especially if they have work.
"Our programs help aid the healing process by providing relief, socialization, and a sense of normalcy to families and patients spending time inside hospitals.”
Halverson-Godson, the director of development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said the video games provide a virtual departure from the hospital.
“Video games help with the long periods of waiting and healing,” she said.
For Saperstein, this is the kind of relief he wants to provide for sick children staying at hospitals.
Even when he was suddenly laid off last month when his former employer Charles Dunn Co. abruptly shut down its commercial brokerage unit, Saperstein never wavered in his commitment and sizable donation.
“This was something I never had second thoughts about," Saperstein said, adding that he puts a small percentage of his sales commission to nonprofit causes.
He has asked his clients to donate and hopes the commercial real estate community could come together to contribute to this cause. Aside from the $20K he has put in, he has raised an additional $3,600.
“For me, this has kind of become the driver to work harder, to do better, to add more value to my clients so I can do things like this," Saperstein said. "Especially in this time of year, if you can help, help, and if it's not this, donate in other ways."
Tammy Bourbeau wants to continue her son's legacy. The family has set up a GoFundMe page to raise more money for video game systems in pediatric and young adult oncology hospital rooms across the nation.
The family recently moved back to Tampa, Florida, and is in the process of creating a nonprofit. Bourbeau has partnered with a company based in Washington that will build video game units for hospitals with pre-loaded games and movies.
She plans to contact Saperstein and thank him for thinking of her son.
"It's a great cause," she said. "A lot of these kids are suffering and they have nothing else to look forward to."
"As sad as it is, it's [also] about keeping my son's name alive," she said. "He was so much more than a 17-year-old kid who had cancer. This was Timothy's wish."
To donate to Abbi Saperstein's cause, click here.
To donate to Tammy Bourbeau's GoFund me, click here.