Nick Foligno, full of smiles, autographs, giveaway ball caps — and above all, the profound relief of a parent with a child made healthy — returned to Children’s Hospital Thursday morning to say thanks.
Foligno, captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, made official the $500,000 gift he and wife Janelle donated to Children’s, a symbol of their gratitude for the life-saving heart surgery their newborn daughter Milana received at the hospital in November 2013.
“What they did for my family . . . actually, they gave me a family,” said Foligno, 28, in town with the Blue Jackets to face the Bruins Thursday night at TD Garden. “They gave me an opportunity to have a family and I am always indebted to them for that.’’
Milana, who celebrated her third birthday Oct. 14, was born with a malformed, leaking heart valve that doctors here made whole by inserting a tiny, expandable stent. Milana, less than a month old when she had surgery, is now a healthy and rambunctious preschooler. She is aware of the whole ordeal, said her dad, only because of the tiny scar she carries on her chest.
“Other than that, a normal, active 3-year-old,” noted Foligno. “She keeps bossing her little brother [Landon] around, for sure. I’ve never seen a kid in a headlock more in my life.’’
Grateful for Milana’s treatment, the Folignos last month reached in their pockets for a $1 million donation, splitting it evenly between the world-renowned Boston Children’s and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where Milana’s condition was diagnosed at birth.
They designated the $500,000 here to go to pediatric heart research, with special thanks to Dr. Sitaram Emani, who performed the surgery, and Dr. Wayne Tworetzky, the pediatric cardiologist whom the Folignos first contacted and who went on to oversee Milana’s five-week stay.
“An emotional time for us, but one with a happy ending,’’ said Foligno. “It’s nice to come back here. To be back and to know that we’ve come a long way, especially for Milana, to see how well she is doing now and to be able to thank the doctors and the people that cared for her.’’
According to Tworetzky, who joined Foligno on the tour, it was Emani’s innovative repurposing of an existing stent device some five years ago that was vital in saving Milana’s life. Emani realized the stent, typically used in a different part of the heart for older pediatric patients, could be utilized for newborns with Milana’s condition if it were miniaturized and turned upside-down.
“Something you would think of in your garage when you are trying to fix something,’’ said Tworetzky. “Sometimes something is staring you in the face and it takes someone to actually notice it.”
According to Tworetzky, Milana was approximately the 15th patient to undergo the procedure at Children’s. He and Emani in recent months trained doctors in Italy to perform the same operation, and doctors there have taught the procedure to other caregivers in Europe. Good things happen in the garage.
The Folignos hope their donation will lead Emani, Tworetzky, and other Children’s doctors to similar discoveries.
The stent, made by Medtronic Inc., is known as a “melody valve.’’ The inventor, noted Tworetzky, is both a doctor and a violinist. German-born Dr. Philipp Bonhoeffer also makes violins, old-world melodic devices, in his spare time.
Foligno, with Tworetzky at his side Thursday, lingered for a while outside room No. 24 in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, where Milana recovered after surgery. He shook hands with staff, offered high-fives to children receiving care, and recalled the anxious hours in 2013 when his firstborn arrived in dire need of help.
“Being in that waiting room, during Milana’s surgery,’’ mused Foligno, “and watching the doc come down the hallway, trying to read his face, wondering, ‘How’d the surgery go?’ ”
All went fine. Milana’s heart is healthy and strong. The scar, Janelle Foligno tells her daughter, is there because she has a “special heart.’’ Milana returns to Children’s for checkups now and again, and eventually the replacement valve will have to be adjusted, stretched slightly, in what Tworetzky made sound as if it would be a fairly simple procedure.
“We realized how fortunate we were and the story we were able to tell,’’ said Foligno. “And the way it all worked out. You never really think you’ll have to do your research and homework when you are just becoming a parent. But that was the situation we found ourselves in and we were lucky enough to find Boston.’’
During his visit to the CICU’s playroom, Foligno chatted briefly with a couple from North Carolina, the father cradling the infant, a newborn with a heart in need of mending.
“This is an amazing place,’’ the father told the hockey player from Columbus. Foligno said he knew that to be true, he knew the amazing.
A young girl from Connecticut, a ninth grader, told Foligno she was at Children’s because doctors back home weren’t sure what was going on with her heart. She recently passed out at school. He told her he had a teammate from Connecticut. “From Greenwich,’’ he said, “but he’s a spoiled brat.’’
The girl laughed a little, comedy the prescription that never fails.
“You know, my daughter was born with a bad heart,’’ Foligno said as a means of comfort. “She’s awesome now! And I am sure it will be the same for you.’’
A visitor couldn’t help but notice, as Foligno and the girl spoke, the words inscribed high above their heads on one of the playroom’s walls.
“Wake up every morning,’’ it read, “with the thought that something wonderful is about to happen.’’
Something wonderful happened for Milana Foligno, age 3, now a preschooler with a penchant for wrapping her baby brother in a headlock. Who could ask for better?
“This,’’ said Foligno, “is an incredible place.’’