A little girl who survived a rare form of eye cancer turned on—and saw—the lights in a spectacular Christmas show that benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation
Natalie Sprang of Belgium waited as long as a 5-year-old could, anxious with anticipation to see the Christmas lights.
She pushed the big red button, and the light show began — 85,000 lights set to music and complete with a talking snowman and Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“It was pretty exciting for her. She squealed,” Natalie’s father Jason Sprang said. “It was hard for her not to push the button before the time.”
The feeling was the same for Greg Konzal, who runs the light show at his 4083 Highview Drive, Town of Jackson home.
“I was on cloud nine just seeing the reaction on everyone’s face when we unveiled Sprinkles and when the show actually came on. It was surreal,” he said.
Konzal has operated a light show for the past 15 years and paired it with a charitable cause. This is the first year Make-A-Wish Foundation is the benefactor from a box of donations at the edge of Konzal’s front yard.
Natalie could only see the thousands of lights through one eye. After being diagnosed with retinobalstoma, a rare form of eye cancer, when she was 1, she had to have one eye removed.
Things could have been much worse if Natalie’s mother Heidi Sprang hadn’t insisted something was wrong after seeing something reflecting in the light in her youngest daughter’s eye. Jason could see it too.
An initial trip to the doctor revealed nothing, but a persistent Heidi took Natalie back in, and they were sent to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa.
“The light had to hit her just right to see what’s in her eye. It looked like a deer in headlights,” Jason said.
Within one week of the diagnosis, Natalie had surgery on Dec. 3, 2012. It was too late to save the eye, and then the family nervously waited on tests to see if the cancer spread.
“Anybody who gets the ‘C’ word, you don’t know, especially when it’s your child,” Jason said.
Tests showed the cancer hadn’t spread. More testing brought more relief. The rest of the family didn’t have the disease.
The cause of the cancer is unknown, though doctors expect Natalie had the disease since birth and could never see out of the eye.
Now 5, Natalie is out of the high-risk stage of the cancer returning. She still gets tested every six months.
The impact of growing up with one eye has been minimal. She was given canes to help her walk but she doesn’t need them.
“She’s healthy. The main concern with the loss of the eye was her vision and how it would impede her physical growth. She had done phenomenally well. She runs everywhere. She goes up and down stairs by herself,” her father said.
A silicone eyeball replaced the cancerous one. An ocularist in Brookfield who did a five-year internship to learn colors painted the eye to match Natalie’s good one. The four muscles in Natalie’s eye socket attached to the new eye so it moves naturally.
“If you don’t know anything about it, you wouldn’t be able to tell,” her father said.
Heidi called the Make-A-Wish Foundation to see if anything could be done for Natalie, and the family was overwhelmed.
Jason thought children had to have a terminal illness to be candidates for wishes to be granted, but it turns out any child whose had a life-threatening illness may qualify.
Natalie’s wish was to go to Disney World in Florida, and Make-A-Wish and one of its big supporters, Belman Homes of Milwaukee, pulled out all the stops, including transport to and from the airport, lodging, car and stroller rentals, spending money and tickets to all the parks, including Universal Studios.
A driver in a suit and hat rang the Sprangs’ doorbell at 3:15 a.m. to take them to the airport in a limousine.
“I figured a van transport would take us down there,” Jason aid. “They blew away all of my expectations.”
Belman Homes held a send-off party for the Sprangs, complete with Elsa and Anna from “Frozen,” and has stayed in touch with the family, inviting it to the Parade of Homes each year.
An energetic and spunky child, Natalie doesn’t know what cancer is, but she knows getting poked with needles and being sedated for advanced X-rays.
“To have this come into her life — the joy and comfort — it did what people thought it should do,” her father said of Make-A-Wish. “It’s brought things back into perspective and bring her balance again.”
The experience has also made a profound impact on Jason and the rest of the family.
“It restores a lot of your faith in people. You watch the news at night and you hear a lot of bad things. This is a side you don’t hear a lot about,” he said. “To feel that love from other people, ‘Hey, we care about you.’”
When Konzal made Make-A-Wish the charity of choice at Konzal’s Crazy Christmas Light Show, after a few years of the Washington County Humane Society, Natalie was asked to flip the switch on the show.
Konzal fell in love with Christmas lights as child in South Milwaukee and vowed to one day have his own display.
He started with a small exhibition at his house in Kewaskum, but when he moved to his present larger home 15 years ago he was able to expand. And that he did.
Each year’s show is put to music and run by a computer. New this year is Sprinkles the 6-foot tall mechanical talking and moving snowman, who handles announcements like telling everyone to turn their radios to 101.7 for the show’s musical accompaniment.
Konzal found Sprinkles at a trade show in Chicago. Only five handmade versions are created in the United States each year.
“We wanted to bring something in that has more character,” Konzal said.
Konzal starts setting up the show with his crew of about seven on weekends in September. This year’s setup took about 550 total hours.
He has to order lights in Feburary or March, so as he’s setting up for one show he’s already planning next year’s themes.
“I think about Christmas all year long,” Konzal said.
Konzal works in information technology and taught himself how to do the Christmas lights. The show is preprogrammed on a computer and starts before he gets home from work. It runs seven days per week starting at 4:30 p.m.
LED lights help keep the electricity bill down and allows Konzal to have more control over each one.
For Konzal, bringing joy to others brings joy to him.
“Christmas is the time of year when everyone gets along with each other. Everybody seems really really happy and this brings out a little bit more of the happiness,” he said, “seeing the family out in their car, watching the kids get all excited, that’s the joy that it brings.”
On the first night alone, the show’s audience of 150 people donated $500 to Make-A-Wish.
“We do not use any of the money raised to put on the show. We feel that it’s very very important that if somebody donates their money, they give to a purpose,” Konzal said.
For more information on Konzal’s show, go to www.konzalchristmas.com.
Image Information: Natalie Sprang of Belgium got to push the button to kick off Konzal’s Crazy Christmas Light Show in the Town of Jackson through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Photo by Sam Arendt