With a shy grin and a tentative handshake, 7-year-old Mark Kisner on Thursday met a group of Hernando residents who have been helping pay for the young heart transplant patient's care for two years.
People lined up to welcome the red-haired, freckle-faced youngster from outside of Cleveland, congratulating him on his strength in surviving multiple surgeries and wishing him well on his road to recovery.
Members of American Legion Post 186 and its Auxiliary Unit 152 feted Mark and his family with a welcoming pizza party at the post home and presented the tyke with a check for nearly $800 from their most recent round of fundraising.
The youngster's grandfather, Frank Santoro, a Legionnaire for 36 years, originally approached post chaplain Charlie Haig at a Legion meeting and chokingly told of Mark's plight.
Born with a congenital heart defect, Mark had undergone open-heart surgery at 6 months of age. At age 5, he was facing another such procedure. The family was under financial duress. Santoro asked, could the Legion do anything to help?
Haig got right on it. That same evening, Haig did a "whip around" the room, his hand out while sharing Santoro's request with those in attendance. "That night's whip-around raised $197," Haig said.
It launched an effort designating Mark as the organization's Poster Child and has raised more than $5,000 in donations to date.
Word of the need spread through a post Web site featuring a photo of Mark in a hospital bed, nearly unrecognizable through tubes and bandage wraps. It brought contributions from Legion posts and auxiliaries throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Haig personally worked veterans' gatherings, collecting funds via whip-arounds at Post 196, Polish Legion of American Veterans, Spring Hill, and American Legion, 15th District, both groups of which Haig also serves as chaplain, and from Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 8681, Spring Hill.
Individuals gave as much as $50, Haig said. A 90-year-old vet reached in his pocket and came up with $10.
Last July, Mark received a mechanical Berlin heart, one of only about 500 worldwide, Haig said. The Berlin heart bought him time and stabilized a heart-induced lung condition that otherwise would have necessitated a risky transplant of both heart and lungs.
Two weeks later, a child's human heart became available. The transplant, as was the case with all of Mark's other surgeries, was performed at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Mark's needs took a toll on his family. His mother, Melissa Kisner, gave up her job as a restaurant manager. Mother and son's stay for four months in Pittsburgh left brothers, Martin, 12; Matt, 10; and Ashton, 22 months, back in Parma, Ohio, along with Melissa's partner, Scott McCormick.
Since returning home, Melissa has been working as a waitress one evening a week to provide a little cash although Mark's professional health care is covered by Medicaid.
Her full-time job is caring for and home-schooling Mark. Because his immune system is depleted by the anti-rejection drugs, he is not allowed to attend school. Although missing this school year, he's on track as a second-grader, his mother said. Martin and Matt have been helping their sibling with reading and math.
All have been taking time off this week, enjoying a three-day visit to Disney World provided by the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Give the Kids the World. The trip enabled the family to greet Mark's benefactors and to spend time with the boys' grandparents, Frank and Margaret Santoro.
And the trip put at bay, at least temporarily, Mark's recollections of his hospitalizations.
Asked about his confinements, Mark mused Thursday over what he disliked the most. Melissa finally answered for him.
"The worst part for him was not eating," she said. Instead, the patient received nutrition intravenously. "Now (that) he can eat, he eats all the time."
Proving her words, while awaiting the serving of pizza, Mark munched on a double-crackle chocolate Easter bunny from his hosts.
Mark has gained some 20 pounds since receiving his new heart, and now weighs about 50 pounds. "I'm fat," Mark declared. But he needs to bulk up if he aims to achieve his goal of playing football.
At the close of a brief ceremony, Haig told the nearly 50 attendees that their work isn't over, that fundraising will continue "as long as it takes."
Patting the youngster on the arm, Haig told him, "Mark, we're still going to be with you."
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.