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Hospital volunteer instills courage in boy who shares heart defect

| Saturday, May 16, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Luke Ziegler, 21, of Oakland plays video games with Ty Lallone, 6, of Wellsburg, W.Va., at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Ziegler and Lallone had the same type of open-heart surgery performed by the same doctors, eight years apart. Ziegler, a hospital volunteer, visits the hospital where he was once a patient to talk with children going through what he did years earlier.
Chris Togneri | Trib Total Media
Luke Ziegler, 21, of Oakland plays video games with Ty Lallone, 6, of Wellsburg, W.Va., at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Ziegler and Lallone had the same type of open-heart surgery performed by the same doctors, eight years apart. Ziegler, a hospital volunteer, visits the hospital where he was once a patient to talk with children going through what he did years earlier.
Luke Ziegler, 21, of Oakland is a University of Pittsburgh student majoring in Japanese who volunteers every Friday at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Nate Smallwood | Trib Total Media
Luke Ziegler, 21, of Oakland is a University of Pittsburgh student majoring in Japanese who volunteers every Friday at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Even surrounded by family, the little boy in the hospital felt alone.

Then, a stranger walked in and showed him he wasn't.

“I know right now it might seem weird,” Luke Ziegler, 21, of Oakland told the boy, “but a lot of people have them now.”

Ty Lallone, 6, of Wellsburg, W.Va., was not immediately convinced. A day earlier, doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC had cut open his chest to repair his heart. They left a dark-red, 10-inch wound in the middle of his tiny chest, and Ty worried about the scar.

So Ziegler, a volunteer at Children's who every Friday visits kids with the same heart problems he once had, pulled up his shirt: A long scar ran down the middle of his chest.

“Look, Ty — see it?” said Jonathan Lallone, Ty's dad, as family gathered around the boy in a Children's playroom. “That's what yours is going to look like. It's a warrior scar.”

Ty's eyes flashed toward Ziegler's chest.

“People don't even notice it,” Ziegler said. He pulled his shirt down and sat in a chair next to Ty, who returned his focus to a TV screen. “You playing Donkey Kong?”

“Yeah,” Ty said.

Ziegler grabbed a controller and joined the game. Ty did not protest. The Lallone family watched from a distance.

Ty was born with a congenital heart defect. He needed the Ross Procedure — performed by Dr. Peter Wearden, pediatric cardiac surgeon at Children's since 2005 — to replace an aortic valve.

It had gone well, but the family worried about his recovery, his future, his quality of life. And now, Ty was suddenly self-conscious about his scar.

“Something happened,” Jonathan Lallone said. “Last night when his sister walked in, he pulled the blanket up to his neck to hide it.”

As they spoke, a nurse arrived and told Ty, who had to go shirtless to guard against infection, that it was time to take his medicine. He paused the video game and stepped slowly out of the room.

Ziegler turned to the family: “Did I hear Ross Procedure? That's what I had,” he said. Same procedure, same surgeon, same hospital, “and now, I have no restrictions.”

The Lallone family exhaled as one. Ty's grandmother began to cry.

“That gives us hope,” said Bettie Lallone, 58. “Oh my gosh, I'm so glad to talk to you.”

Ty returned.

“Hey, Ty, guess what we just found out,” his dad said. “Luke had the Ross Procedure, too. It was the same doctor. And guess what — no restrictions! He can do anything except weightlifting.”

Ty looked shyly and hopefully at Ziegler, offering eye contact for the first time.

“I've got all kinds of energy, man,” Ziegler said reassuringly, because he knew better than anyone.

Ty believed him. No longer embarrassed to be shirtless, he nodded, then led Ziegler back to the TV screen.

And with the confidence of a warrior, he took up his controller and continued their game.

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