The Mastic fifth-grader who suddenly collapsed while playing outside her home was cheered as she returned 10 days later with a defibrillator in her heart and a big smile on her face.
Friends lined up Friday near the family's balloon-adorned front porch to hug Alana Kiceina on her 11th birthday.
She opened her gifts in the front yard -- the scene of her near-death experience.
Alana was chasing the family dog and eating tortilla chips when she collapsed April 25. Doctors initially suspected that she had choked, but that was quickly ruled out. The real cause of her cardiac arrest still isn't known.
In a 90-minute operation Thursday, doctors at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan implanted the defibrillator, a device that will shock her heart if it falters.
After her afternoon party Friday, she sat on the couch, quiet in her usual way, hands clasped in front of her.
"For three months, she has to take it easy," said her mother, Joan Kiceina.
Since the incident, Alan Kiceina said his daughter has been anxious about going to sleep, or even closing her eyes. She didn't want to risk another attack.
But Alana now calls the palm-sized device permanently placed in her chest her "guardian."
"She said it doesn't feel like a box," Alan Kiceina said. "It feels like a guardian angel."
Before she was discharged from the hospital, her surgeon, pediatric cardiologist Barry Love, gathered the medical team to serenade her with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
"Overall, she was a little overwhelmed," said Love, who got a hug from his young patient. "She's a little shy."
Love described the cause of Alana's collapse as a medical mystery that may take months to solve. The next steps are blood and genetic tests, which can take months to analyze.
"We don't have any proof of it just yet, but our suspicion is she happened to be eating chips at the time when she actually had a primary cardiac event -- that she didn't choke on a chip," he said.
Children Alana's age usually don't choke on food until they pass out, unlike very young children, because their airways are bigger. The fact that Alana lost consciousness so fast, Love said, is a further sign that choking wasn't the cause.
When she was initially resuscitated with an external defibrillator, it showed an abnormal rhythm in the lower chamber of her heart, a condition known as ventricular fibrillation.
"The heart was just quivering electronically," Love said.
Tests during her hospital stay, including an ultrasound of her heart, showed normal results.
There was another telling indicator of Alana's relative well-being.
With William Murphy
and John Valenti