NORWOOD — At first, Marie Musacchio thought her son Nicholas simply had a toothache.
But then a fever set in and swelling engulfed the 7-year-old’s face, sealing his eyes shut.
Musacchio rushed him at 3 a.m. from their Bronx home to the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, where doctors found a cellulitis infection that had spread through his face and threatened to extend further.
Dentists there had to quickly remove the tooth, even as the numbing effect of the Novocain was overwhelmed by the cellulitis, which rendered every inch of Nicholas' face painfully tender.
“It was a life-threatening situation,” Musacchio said, “and he was traumatized by the whole experience.”
But shortly before Nicholas was discharged a few days after the episode in 2010, a stranger visited his room and gave him a toy. The man visited the hospital every year, he explained, on the birthday of his child who had died in the hospital.
This holiday season, Nicholas and his mother are returning the favor.
They’ve organized a toy drive for the Children’s Hospital, which relies almost entirely on donations to run art and recreation programs that help young patients cope with the stress of treatment.
“It’s to give back and bring some joy to these kids,” Musacchio said. “You don’t realize when you’re going about your daily life with your children how blessed and how lucky you are that they’re healthy.”
Musacchio and her son have already filled about 12 large bags with new toys from donors, many of them classmates at Nicholas’ school. They will deliver the gifts next month.
It took some courage for Nicholas, now 9, to even consider the toy drive, Musacchio said, because of his deep dread of hospitals.
Earlier this year, a bad stomachache turned out to be appendicitis, and Nicholas was rushed to the Children’s Hospital again. IV injections, hours of tests and a 1 a.m. surgery followed.
After this second medical emergency, Nicholas was terrified of hospitals, Musacchio said.
“The last thing he wanted to hear was the H-word, as he calls it,” she said. “Even in church, when they would say, ‘Pray for people in the hospital,’ he would cry.”
But when Musacchio recently proposed using the online network of Bronx merchants she runs, called Shop the Bronx, to raise toys for hospitalized children, Nicholas was ecstatic.
He told his teacher about the idea, and she made it a class project. Later, some Girl Scout troops joined on as well.
The Children’s Hospital program that helps patients adjust to their treatment, called Child Life, has a real need for the donated toys, said Meghan Kelly, the program’s director.
Child Life provides patients with supervised playtime, when specialists can clear up children’s misunderstandings about their illnesses and treatment and offer support. The patients also get to act in skits, play instruments and use mock medical equipment.
But none of those services are covered by federal funding — meaning that about two-thirds of the staff salaries and all the supplies come from donations.
“Everything we use for teaching supplies, play, art, music, birthday and holiday presents, special gifts after a difficult treatment, all are in-kind or monetary donations,” Kelly said. “We need toy donations all year round.”
The hospital receives roughly 1,000 donated toys each holiday season, Kelly said, some of which are distributed then, and others which are stored for later. By the summer, “It’s slim pickings,” she added.
Donations — both of toys and funding — have already been down the last few years because of the recent recession, and are expected to remain low this year as many people opt to support victims of Hurricane Sandy, Kelly said.
The hospital will gladly accept any toys, but there is often a shortage of gifts for infants and toddlers, as well as for teenagers, Kelly said. Teenage patients love gift cards, bath products and accessories like hats and jewelry, she added.
To contribute to the toy drive, drop off a new toy by December 5 at one of the following Bronx merchants — 900Park, Geronimo’s Deli or Family Chiropractic Care.
To donate directly to the hospital, or to volunteer there, call Catherine Verow at 718-741-2556 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.