It became apparent a few hours after I was born at Brooklyn Caledonia Hospital that I wasn't able to be nursed. I was crying, shaking all over and began convulsing. The doctor decided I needed to be transferred to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where they were better equipped to handle my worsening condition.
I was transported by ambulance in an incubator and hooked up to an IV. My parents were told the IV was necessary until I could take in food on my own. Weeks of observation turned into months. Under the care of Dr. Ralph Moloshok, the chief of staff for the Department of Pediatric Endocrinology, the diagnostic process began.
My blood tests all came back normal, which baffled the doctors. After being subjected to invasive tests, injections, IVs, feeding tubes, etc., I was diagnosed with a thyroid problem and hypoglycemia. I was given the steroid cortisone acetate every three days.
By July, I started to eat. In August, after I'd been in the hospital for seven months, the doctor said I could finally go home. However, I would need three steroid injections a week. My father took on the job. I started to gain weight, but I wasn't growing.
It wasn't until the following year that Dr. Moloshok discovered my illness had a name: panhypopituitarism
. With this condition, the pituitary gland does not produce enough hormones. It limited my growth and today, as a 43-year-old adult, I can pass for a teen.
Even after growth hormone therapy began, I would still get sick. Falling blood sugar levels led to multiple symptoms. I would feel ill and wake up in the hospital hooked up to an IV.
At age 9, I weighed about 40 pounds -- the weight of a typical 4-year-old.
I was admitted to the hospital for a month to run tests in hopes of finding a way for me to gain weight. I was nervous, scared and tired of being poked with needles.
When I was 11, the doctors prescribed tube feeding to help me get the nourishment I so desperately needed. This required another hospital stay. After three weeks, I left the hospital with a tube in my nose taped to the side of my face.
I walked through my neighborhood with a scarf covering my face and a bully pulled the scarf down and started laughing at me. I didn't have a normal childhood. I missed much of my early school years. When I did make it to school, I was always the smallest and skinniest in the class.
I was bullied almost daily and endured humiliating embarrassments, like being dumped in a garbage bin. Kids can be cruel, and they were. But I would always think of the kids at the hospital -- those fighting cancer, leukemia, heart problems and conditions worse than mine. Thinking of them gave me the drive to persevere.
School obviously wasn't my favorite place, but in a home economics class I learned how to make chocolate lollipops and other novelties, which I sold to earn spending money. I also worked at various businesses in my neighborhood.
But my dream was to become an actor. I was a huge fan of TV sitcoms in the '80s. They kept me company during my many long hospital stays. I wanted to entertain people like that.
I got acquainted with the industry's sources for casting calls and "who's who" lists. In 1988, I scored my first major role in a short student film, "Mella's Shoes." I got my Screen Actors Guild card a year later.
As an Italian kid from Brooklyn, roles were not easy to come by; plus my size limited the roles I could pursue. Through my determined pursuit of director John Badham, I got a silent part at the end of the movie "The Hard Way," starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods. I also landed small parts in "Studio 54" and "Bullet."
A bigger break came in 1999. I was a stand-in for Dennis Franz's son on "NYPD Blue." After hearing me speak to my mom in Italian on the phone, executive producer Bill Clark introduced me to the series creators, David Milch and Steven Bochco.
Long story short, I became friends with the cast and crew. In March 2000, a role was written specifically for me on an episode of "NYPD Blue." The part was a real career boost! I am so very grateful to Bill Clark and David Milch for giving me my "big chance."
Last year my memoir, "From Hopeless to Hollywood,"
was published. Working on the book has made me proud of the direction my life has taken and the people I've met. My life has been filled with good times and bad, pain and joy.
The most important thing I've learned is, never give up on your dreams. I didn't have a "normal" childhood, but I turned my negative condition into a positive outcome. I pursued and am still pursuing a career doing what I love -- acting.
In the words of Bea Arthur's character on "Maude" in 1975: "If you don't strive, then the door to life remains forever shut, and that person just wanders through the rest of her life wondering what might have happened if she had walked through."
I too pushed open that door to find many other doors beyond it, doors that would have been unavailable to me if I hadn't pushed through the first one. So no matter what -- win, lose, or draw -- I will have no regrets.