LEVANT, Maine — Maggie Rudnicki, 5, first met professional hockey player Andrew Ference last March, when she and her family attended a hockey game in Boston as guests of the Children’s Miracle Network. At that time, she was preparing for a bone marrow transplant as part of her medical treatment for a rare genetic disorder that prevented her body from generating red blood cells.
Ference was a defenseman for the Boston Bruins who learned through social media that a little girl from Maine fighting a serious disease was coming to the game.
Fewer than 1,000 people in the world have been diagnosed with Diamond Blackfan anemia, according to a foundation dedicated to fighting the disease. Maggie did not respond to the steroids usually used to treat the disorder, so her supply of red blood cells was replenished by blood transfusions about every three weeks. Going to a hockey game was not only a treat but a break from the medical routine.
“He knew we were going to a game and he invited us to meet him after the game, so we did that,” Maggie’s mother, Lauren Rudnicki, said last week. Ference presented Maggie with the hockey stick he used in that game — a prized possession that now hangs on a wall over her bed, along with pictures of Ference and Bruins forward Shawn Thornton.
The story might have ended there, but Ference was touched by Maggie’s courage.
“When we went back to Boston for appointments a couple of weeks later, we ended up being able to go to another game,” Lauren Rudnicki said. “He actually took Maggie and my husband [Andy Rudnicki] into the locker room and gave them a little bit of a tour, which was really cool for them. From that point on, Maggie has obviously cared for him a lot and he’s done a lot to continue their friendship.”
Ference, who has two daughters of his own, said last week in an email to the Bangor Daily News that he was smitten with Maggie from the moment they met.
“Maggie is such a great kid and as soon as I met her she really left an impression on me,” he said. “I really consider her my buddy and even though I can’t help out the way doctors can, I realize that she has a great time with hockey and it gives her a lot of great memories with her family as well.”
Maggie and Ference keep in regular contact through video messages, FaceTime and texts every week or two, Ference said, adding, “I have Maggie’s mom on my Twitter feed to keep updated on when some of the big doctor days are so I usually try and check in with Mags around those times.”
Lauren Rudnicki said Ference spent some time with Maggie the day she was admitted to Tufts Medical Center in Boston for her transplant. Her marrow donor was her 7-year-old brother, Lucas.
“There were a couple of days where she was at the hospital and irritated at being there and then she’d get a video message from him and it just changed her whole personality in an instant. It’s just been really special, not something we ever expected, certainly not something that he ever had to do,” she said.
Cross border friendship
Some thought the friendship would end last summer, when Ference signed a contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Ference proved them wrong.
“I can’t really think of a reason why I wouldn’t stay in touch,” he said. “She is a great kid and I really enjoy chatting with her and hearing about how great she is doing. We made some great friends when we lived [in the United States] and keep in touch with all of them. I don’t consider visiting with Maggie as some kind of charitable thing, myself and my daughters as well really care about how she is and are quite fond of her attitude.”
Oilers apparel is now among Maggie’s collection of pro hockey memorabilia.
“He didn’t have to stay in contact after he left,” Lauren Rudnicki said. “You know, he’s all the way in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and he still will take the time to reach out to her.”
Lauren Rudnicki appreciates the effort Ference has made to continue supporting Maggie.
“I think it’s amazing that he’s not here anymore but he clearly has not forgotten about her,” she said. “She’s been through a lot and to see something make her so happy means a lot to us. I think it’s meant a lot more than he realizes that it’s meant. You know, he never had to do anything in the first place. He could have met us the first time and that would have been plenty.”
Lauren Rudnicki said she can see the positive effect Ference has had on her daughter.
“The fact that he stayed in contact with us, came to visit Maggie at the hospital and has taken the time to keep in touch with her has been such a positive thing in her life and it’s done a lot, I think, for her confidence. It clearly makes her feel very special. She talks about it to a lot of people, you know, ‘My best friend, Andy Ference.’”
Ference said he has met several children going through some tough circumstances.
“I’ve learned more from them than I could possibly give in return,” he said. “Maggie is a great inspiration in the way she handles the hospital time with such an amazing attitude. I don’t pretend to have some great pep talk because I don’t, I just try and offer my friendship and hopefully some smiles by just treating them as buddies and not patients.”
The road to recovery
Maggie underwent a bone marrow transplant on July 24 last year, her mother said. The process began with high-dose chemotherapy, the marrow transplant and then a period of isolation. Maggie was discharged from the hospital in October. She is being tutored at home, and likely will be through the rest of the school year, because she is still building up her immune system.
While the bone marrow transplant won’t cure Maggie’s disorder, it appears to have eliminated the need for blood transfusions, her mother said, adding that her 99th — and hopefully last — transfusion took place in August.
Maggie now is learning to play hockey at an arena in Brewer, where she wields a child-size stick decorated with fierce-looking skulls, a motif that also appeared in the black crystal-studded earrings she wore for an interview last week.
“I told her she’s going to be the first female Bruin,” Lauren Rudnicki said with a laugh.
Mention of Ference brings a shy smile to Maggie’s face. Asked who she roots for when the Bruins face off against the Oilers, Maggie simply says, “We cheer for both. So whoever wins, we just clap.”
When the two teams played in Boston on Feb. 1, Maggie turned up in her black Bruins leggings, her Oilers jersey and her Bruins headband.
“We got to see Andrew after the game, which was nice for Maggie,” Lauren Rudnicki said.
Maggie is making progress fighting the disease.
“Over the summer, she got really withdrawn, she lost her hair, she was so far away from home and she only got to see her dad and her brothers on the weekends, so it was tough,” Lauren Rudnicki said. “I feel like since we got home she’s starting to see that we’re staying home. A lot of the old Maggie is starting to come back. Her little personality is coming back. It’s nice.”