Val, Steve, Spencer And Billy Joel’s Big Hit: The Spencer Veraldi Story

Photo of Spencer
Photo of Spencer

A young Billy Joel was dead-set against adding a sweet little song he had written for his then-wife and business manager, Elizabeth Webber, to his soon to be released album, "The Stranger." He, nor his band, really liked the song, but after a bit of friendly persuasion by both Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, Joel conceded and made "Just the Way You Are" the third track on his 1977 album. It was his first album to climb to the U.S. Top 10 singles list, and his first single to go gold. It also won Joel two Grammy Awards in 1979 for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. 

How ironic is it for a song that was seemly unwanted by its creator to become a spiritual anthem for Val and Steve Veraldi as they cared for their son, Spencer, from the moment he was born 17 years ago?  Yes, both of them truly love Spencer just the way he was as a tiny, fragile newborn and now as a delightful, tenacious teenager. 

After nine years of marital bliss, Val and Steve were surprised to discover Val was pregnant. Even though it was unplanned and certainly unexpected, the Veraldis were quickly overjoyed with even the thought of welcoming a precious baby to their home in beautiful Westminster, Colo. With each coat of paint applied to the baby’s room, excitement grew for the happy couple. By all accounts, Val was having a textbook pregnancy, but then out of the blue, a nagging discomfort began to creep into her body. It started as an annoying aching and tightness in her abdomen. In her words, “I felt fat.”

It wasn’t so painful it prevented her from fulfilling her summertime school teacher duties. Yes, even some teachers have to work in the summer. Soon the discomfort was too much  to bear and in the middle of the day, Val left the math professional development class she was attending and went to her doctor. After a battery of tests at the doctor’s office, she was sent to the hospital for additional tests and a consultation.

The results were devastating and would change her and Steve’s lives forever. Val was told she had HELLP Syndrome. The H stands for hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells; EL represents elevated liver enzymes;  and the LP is for low platelet count. It is a rare and life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. Both conditions
usually occur during the later stages of pregnancy, or sometimes after childbirth, but not this time.

The classic signs of HELLP are high blood pressure and elevated levels of protein in the urine. Sometimes the signs are mistaken for gastritis, flu, acute hepatitis, gall bladder disease, or other conditions. The most frightening fact regarding HELLP is the morbidity and mortality rate, which can be as high as 25 percent. If left untreated Val could  have died from a possible liver rupture or massive stroke. Quick action was imperative if she was to survive HELLP, but what about the baby? 

“The doctor told us Val couldn’t leave the hospital until she had the baby. I thought we would be in the hospital a long time, but no, they were going to induce labor right away,” Steve said.

Inducing labor didn't work. Val’s body kept shutting down. The only way the doctors could save Val and the baby’s life was to perform an emergency cesarean section. Spencer James Veraldi arrived on July 11, 1996, 28 weeks premature.

As would be expected, Spencer spent his first days of life in NICU. His little body was plugged into every possible gadget and gizmo known to help preemies hang on to life and eventually grow stronger and stronger, God willing. Even with all the help of the medical pros Spencer’s frail body and especially his underdeveloped  lungs failed to deliver ample oxygen to his brain. To this day, the Veraldis do not know exactly when this lack of oxygen took place, but it did. Consequently, Spencer developed periventricular leukomalasia, which resulted in severe cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment and epilepsy.

Even after a lengthy stay in NICU it was obvious Spencer would not meet the customary milestones of a normal, healthy newborn. The doctors told Val and Steve, “We’ve done all we know to do.” They recommended the couple take Spencer home and begin learning how  to live with his numerous disabilities.  

The first task for the new parents was to find a baby formula Spencer could tolerate. As a new mom, Val was sure her own milk would do the trick, but that was not the case. “The first two years were terribly hard. Spencer had uncontrollable vomiting.  Nothing helped, including surgery and medications,”  Val said. 

The new parents looked for answers and ways to stabilize their situation, which was virtually  impossible to find. Even the world famous Mayo Clinic was unable to help. Finally, a tiny sliver of hope came in the form of a global e-blast sent out by a friend. Miraculously a friend of a friend responded suggesting the Veraldis contact an osteopathic physician in San Diego. Desperation sent them flying to California as soon as possible. Traveling to the West Coast would not have been possible without the generosity of many friends, and even people they did not know.

“When we first saw the doctor it was a little frightening. She was a tiny wrinkled-up little woman from England. It really was scary, but we were at a point that we’d try anything,”  Val said.

Over the course of a year the Veraldis trekked from Colorado to California five different times. Slowly but surely, the visits to Dr. Viola Frymann, a gifted osteopathic physician, began to pay off. Spencer began to sleep a bit better. His vomiting slowed down a little, too. Oddly, Val and Steve never witnessed the treatments Dr. Frymann administered to their child. Parents were not allowed in the treatment room. Dr. Frymann said, “Parents would be a distraction for the child.” At this stage of the game Val and Steve weren’t about to question the quirky qualities of Dr. Frymann as long as they were working.  

Yearly visits to San Diego, each lasting for a month, continued until Spencer was 9 years old. He had grown too large for the teeny, tiny English doctor to bend and twist and massage, or whatever it was she did to Spencer inside her treatment room. It was not only a sad day because  they were losing the magic of Dr. Frymann, but it seemed as if it would  be impossible to replace her. And it was. “We traveled all across Colorado trying to find someone who could  do what Dr. Frymann did for Spencer, but we haven’t found anyone,” Steve said. 

They did find new hope with the help of an excellent physical therapist and speech pathologist.What they discovered as one therapist put it, “Spencer has a great mind that’s trapped in a crummy body.” 

Few people other than his mother saw evidence of that great mind. Because she was a school teacher it made sense the floor of their home became Spencer’s classroom. It took incredible effort, energy and love on the part of both the pupil and teacher, but somehow things were clicking.With very sophisticated communication devices, Spencer could write entire sentences even though it might take him an hour. Twenty minutes to do a math problem was customary for him. With the continued assistance of his mom and close friends,Spencer attended a home school program once a week. This helped him stay on track academically and remain eligible to enter public high school as a freshman. Today, Spencer is a junior and expected to graduate in 2015.

Even though Spencer’s disabilities have not subsided over the years, he is in so many ways a typical teenage boy. He loves to be as physically active as possible and thanks to the National Sport for the Disabled, he enjoys adaptive rock climbing,kayaking and horseback riding. A friend helped create a website, spencerv.com, where you can purchase greeting cards and other items featuring Spencer’s writing skills.  

Spencer’s ultimate dream is to live on the beach in Coronado, Calif., and work as full-time writer. We hope and pray that his dream will someday come true. Regardless of what the future may hold for Spencer, his parents will always be by his side. Even though the journey was unexpected and all consuming, they don’t regret it for a minute. “Spence,” as he is often called, has been a true blessing. He continually inspires and reminds us ware all precious children of our creator and he will never leave us in time of trouble. And yes Spencer in the good times and the bad times, your mom and dad will always love you just the way you are.  

The Veraldi family may be reached at veraldi3@yahoo.com.


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