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Josephine's Story

Josephine Rispoli was a vivacious 6-year-old girl who enjoyed the outdoors. An avid swimmer, she loved splashing in the pool and being outside with her family and friends. When Josephine began complaining of headaches, the active lifestyle she knew and loved changed suddenly and radically. One night, a headache was so debilitating that her father rushed her to the hospital where she underwent numerous tests.

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Josephine Rispoli

On September 19, 2010, Josephine was diagnosed with a rare, malignant, high-grade brain tumor called atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT). AT/RT is a rare tumor type that accounts for less than 5% of all pediatric central nervous system tumors. Josephine was admitted to the Joseph M. Sanzari Children's Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center (HackensackUMC), one of the nation's Top 25 Children's Hospitals in the subspecialty of neurology and neurosurgery.

Unfortunately, after a year-long battle that included numerous surgeries, 5 rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, 2 auto-stem cell transplants, and 6 weeks of daily spinal and cranial radiation, Josephine lost her fight on October 23, 2011. Throughout it all, enduring treatment for more than 250 inpatient days at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children's Hospital, she never once lost her fighting spirit and on that day in October 2011, Josephine earned her angel wings.

The Vision of a Garden

During her treatment which required extended hospitalizations, Josephine's environment was restricted by the hospital’s walls. She longed to be outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and just being a little girl. Josephine wanted a place where she and other pediatric patients could interact with nature - see the flowers abloom, feel the fresh air and see the sun shine, and most of all, just be children. Unfortunately, the only way for any pediatric patient to spend time outside at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children's Hospital was to obtain clearance from their healthcare team to leave their specific pediatric unit and visit a garden that was created for adult patients in another area of the Medical Center.

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Although so young, Josephine saw the need to create a magical outdoor escape where pediatric patients wouldn't need special permission to visit with their family members or caregivers. Soon Josephine had her eye on a rooftop space at the Children's Hospital that could be transformed into her dream garden. Josephine worked on the plans with her mother, Heidi. Heidi and Josephine's vision was for all pediatric patients to be able to go outside into this magical garden. Their plans included space to play, beautiful flowers to examine, inspirational artwork, and places for families to be together. The garden would be an interactive space with all the elements of nature and would house a climbing boulder, wishing fountain, a hand-hewn warrior pole, chalkboard walls, and a custom whimsical awning to provide shelter from the sun and rain, as well as a space to create art. They wanted it to be a place that would bring joy to so many and provide a place of respite for patients just like Josephine. In the words of Josephine's mother, Heidi, it would be "a place to blow bubbles, feel the elements, and dream." And so, in tribute to a little girl with a dream and a heart as big as all outdoors, Josephine's Garden was born.

Welcome to Josephine's Garden

Josephine's Garden Wall and Fountain

On July 9, 2012, the day Josephine would have turned 8-years old, Josephine's family and friends gathered to officially unveil Josephine's Garden. Just as she had planned, the area features a wishing fountain, a climbing boulder, warrior pole, chalk board and inspirational artwork. Her mother, Heidi Rispoli, said if her daughter were here today, she would "climb on the boulder and then she'd carve her name in the warrior pole and leave her mark to say 'I fought the fight.'"

The Joseph M. Sanzari Children's Hospital sees more 100,000 visits annually. Some may visit for a couple of hours, or some may be with us for extended periods of time. But, each patient who walks through the doors of the Children's Hospital now has the opportunity to visit Josephine's Garden. Easily accessible and open year-round, Josephine's Garden is a place where our young patients can be outside, breathe fresh air, and feel the wind in their faces - just as Josephine dreamed they would.


To Make a Donation

If you would like to make a donation to the Josephine's Garden Fund for pediatric cancer research, please click here.

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