— In preparing to undergo open-heart surgery on Thursday, the 7-year-old actor who portrayed a pint-sized Darth Vader in a popular Volkswagen commercial has turned to his alter ego for courage.
Child actor Max Page is scheduled for surgery at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles to correct a congenital defect that was diagnosed when he was 3 months old. In the days leading up to the surgery, Page confided to his parents that he was scared for his eighth surgery in seven years and his first-open heart procedure.
A reminder of his famous role helped calm his nerves before he checked into the hospital on Wednesday. “He saw a pair of Darth Vader headsets and he said, 'I want those,’’’ his mother, Jennifer Page, told NBC News. “It really struck me because he's not usually wanting those.
“He said, ‘Cause when I'm Darth, I feel strong.’’’
In the ad, which went viral on YouTube leading up to its televised debut during the Super Bowl in 2011, Max dresses as a mini Darth Vader and attempts to use the Force around the house to no avail before being surprised that he can start his father’s Volkswagen with the wave of a hand — unaware that Dad, watching through a window, has started the car via remote control.
Page will have the pulmonary valve in his heart replaced with a donor valve from another child, and also have a hole in his heart closed up. Page suffers from Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that causes too little oxygen to be present in the blood. The condition has caused Page to be more sluggish, and this is a surgery his parents knew he would need to have at some point.
“The artery that carries the blood between the heart and the lungs is still almost the size of an infant’s,’’ Dr. Michael Silka, chief of the cardiology division at Children’s Hospital, told NBC News. “It’s like trying to pump gas through a straw.’’
Max’s surgeon will be Dr. Vaughn Starnes, who pointed out that the surgery is not due to a sudden emergency in the young actor’s condition. “This is an anticipated operation; it’s not something that came up.”
“Max has not known how good he can feel because of the restrictions of his valve, so this is going to enable him to become even more active, which is hard to believe, and help him out tremendously,’’ his father, Buck Page, told Ann Curry on TODAY Wednesday alongside his wife.
Focus on fun
After admitting to being scared, Page decided to focus on the positive, drawing up a “can so’’ list and turning the family’s home into a fun zone. Each room had a different theme, whether it was a garage that was now an “explode zone’’ filled with science projects and paint, a living room full of stuffed animals, or a “library” in the room of Page’s brother, Ellis, where reading was allowed only with flashlights.
“He said, ‘I just want to focus, Mom, let’s talk about what I can do,’ because at first it was everything he was sad he wasn’t going to be able to do, all the plans we had to cancel,’’ Jennifer Page told Curry. “So we wrote the list and then he looked around. He said, ‘This house is awfully boring to recover in. We need to fun it up.’ We’re so lucky we have an articulate son that’s able to tell us how to help him.’’
But despite their son’s upbeat nature in the face of a daunting surgery, Max’s parents know that emotional times are ahead on Thursday.
“We’re going to be really happy when it’s Friday morning,’’ Jennifer Page said. “We’re entering that part where we’re handing our son over to very skilled and talented people with a mission to save his life. We’re just trying to soak it all up. We’ve taken full advantage that we we’ve known he’s needed this to have a good time, to have fun, but certainly we’re entering some of the hardest emotional times right now.’’
Page, who more resembles a miniature Luke Skywalker once he removes his Darth Vader helmet, is still extremely active despite his heart defect. He has recurring roles on “The Young and the Restless’’ and “Prime Suspect’’ and has appeared in commercials for Clear Communications and Walgreen’s. He also serves as an ambassador to Children’s Hospital, helping to raise money to help other kids with heart ailments. He currently is on his third pacemaker, which will need to be continually replaced throughout his life.
The replacement valve he is receiving during Thursday’s surgery will need to be replaced by a larger one when Page is about 17, and then he will need another one in his 20s. However, a lifetime of necessary medical care has not dampened his sunny disposition.
“It’s like, ‘Where does your strength come from?’’’ his mother told NBC News. “And then your kid says, ‘I want a fun house,’ and you find yourself at an art store, doing all this stuff. You find yourself just having fun doing it and finding the joy.’’
“If you use your Force and dream big, you can achieve anything,’’ Max told NBC News.