Two weeks ago, Blauvelt resident Melissa Dimataris sang for an audience for the first time in nearly a year at a benefit for Maria Fareri Children's Hospital's Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department.
The audience for her second performance since last March will be a bit larger. She is singing the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden before 7 p.m. NHL game tonight between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden.
"I’m so excited," Dimartaris said. "I’ve sung National Anthem for school events in high school. Never this big.
"(Two weeks ago was my) first time singing in probably a year. I missed it. I haven’t been able to do much because I haven’t been feeling well. That was aweseome."
Dimataris spent most of the past year just trying to regain her health. The 20-year-old Tappan Zee High School graduate was studying performing arts at Rockland Community College last year when she got sick. On April 1, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. According to WebMD, it is a cancer of the blood that begins in white blood cells within bone marrow and is very common in children.
Dimataris said she is in remission, but the protocol for the disease is for two and a half years of treatments to guard against a relapse. She is going through inpatient treatments at the Maria Fareri Children's Hospital, which is located at the Westchester Medical Center.
"It’s a long process," Dimataris said. "I have been in remission for months now. It’s so quick to come back, they need to give me treatments to keep it away. It’s been hard with everything with my health. The social aspect of being a teen (when I first got sick) and going through this. I feel like I'm missing out on a lot."
"Melissa is an amazing young woman," said Tricia Hiller, Director of Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. "She was obviously sad when she got the diagnosis. It has to be really tough when you can't do what your peers are doing. Getting to do the things they want to do is part of the healing.
"It's almost like a silver lining, to open some doors that may not have been open, or at least not so soon."
The hospital's philosophy is to provide emotional support for young people with health issues as well as medical treatment. This means setting up opportunities like the one Dimataris will have tonight as well as providing information and support through the medical process.
"Tricia's team plays an important role in what we do at the hospital," said Andrew LaGuardia, the hospital's director of communications.
"We try to make things less stressful and less traumatic," Hiller said. "Providing the psycho-social and emotional support goes-hand-in-hand with the medical (treatment) to help kids get better."
Dimataris, who was in her second semester at RCC when she was diagnosed with leukemia. With treatments compromising her immune system, she has had to be careful about going out in public. She has also spent a great deal of time in the hospital and there have been many occassions that she simply didn't feel well enough to do anything. Dimataris said she is feeling much better now and that her doctor told her she can probably return to school in the fall.
"I have a great support system, though," Dimataris said. "My friends are great. Once I was diagnosed, a huge group of my theater friends joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They ended up being the top fundraising group in Rockland."
Dimataris will also sing at Radio City Music Hall April 11 as part of a Garden of Dreams Foundation talent show. Garden of Dreams is a charitable organization that works with Madison Square Garden to “to make dreams come true for kids facing obstacles.”
"She's sick, but she can do a lot of things," Hiller said. "To her, Radio City Music Hall, that's the theater. When she was in the hospital in December, she met some of the Rockettes. She is going to have a large cheering section."
The opportunity to sing in Radio City Music Hall is a thrill for Dimataris, who has performed in chorus and other shows her whole life and wanted to continue to perform after high school. Her plan entering RCC was to study performing arts for two years, then transfer and do something in musical theater.
"I was always so into musical theater that Broadway was more my target," Dimataris said. "When I heard about Radio City, I was ecstatic. The Tony’s are there. The legends that sing there.
"I'm going to sing “Astonishing” from Little Women. The theme is, "Live your dreams," so we had to pick songs that had to do with that. The lyrics fit really well with the theme."
Garden of Dreams also helped set up tonight's performance. Though Dimataris is extremely excited for tonight's performance, Madison Square Garden was never a place she dreamed of performing. While tonight's game will be only her second performance in nearly a year, it will also be the first hockey game she has attended.
"I was never a huge sports fan," Dimataris said. "I've never watched a hockey game in my life."
Correction: The correct spelling of Melissa's last name is Dimataris.