Andre Giannico was 8 years old when he had his second birthday.
Diagnosed at a young age with hydrocephalus — or fluid on the brain — the little boy had endured 22 surgeries by the time he was 7. He missed school and for a time was blind in one eye.
A birthday party organized by the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America changed his life, he said. The Arizona-based nonprofit — which has separate chapters for Suffolk County and metropolitan New York, including Nassau County — orchestrates special events, trips and experiences to help children with life-threatening illnesses fulfill their dreams.
The 1985 fete at his family’s Levittown home wasn’t just a big party with balloons and a clown, Giannico said. It was the day, he insists, he truly became alive.
“The birthday party literally jump-started my life,” the Westbury resident said. “The power of a wish is really immeasurable. . . . There’s more to life than just doctors and hospitals. It gave me the power to chase my dreams.”
And now it’s his turn to help other children chase their own dreams.
Giannico, 40, is organizing a Jan. 20 fundraiser that combines two of the most important elements of his life: Make-A-Wish and professional wrestling.
Giannico, an accounts payable manager at a credit card processing company, works on weekends as a wrestling referee for Create A Pro Wrestling Academy of Hicksville.
Create A Pro’s Jan. 20 tournament at Nassau Community College in Garden City will double as a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish’s metropolitan New York chapter, based in Lake Success. Giannico said 15 percent of each ticket sold will be donated to the organization.
The bill includes about nine matches, including one between North Massapequa native Johnny Clash and Alex Reynolds of Southampton, Giannico said. He said he plans to referee some of the matches.
Giannico, a pro wrestling fan since childhood, began refereeing matches about 18 years ago. His goal is to become a ref for World Wrestling Entertainment, the industry titan whose wrestlers include Curt Hawkins, a co-owner of Create a Pro.
Raising money through a wrestling tournament “was a perfect fit, and it couldn’t have flowed any nicer,” Giannico said. “We want a giant turnout and we want to raise as much money as possible.”
Create A Pro events typically attract about 100 fans, co-owner Pat Buck said, but he is hoping the fundraiser brings out a bigger crowd.
“We’d be happy if we have 500 people there,” he said. “That would be incredible.”
Buck, 34, of Astoria, Queens, said he “jumped at the opportunity” when Giannico proposed the fundraiser. But Buck said he did not know about his friend’s childhood illness until Giannico told him the whole story.
“When I see Andre, I see our main referee who works with kids,” Buck said. “He’s not one to kind of go around and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been through.’ I give him credit for that.”
What Giannico went through was years of hospitalizations and uncertainty after he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus a few years after he was born.
Hydrocephalus occurs when too much cerebrospinal fluid remains in the brain, and not enough is absorbed in the bloodstream. More than 1 million Americans have the condition, according to the Hydrocephalus Association of Bethesda, Maryland.
There is no cure for hydrocephalus, the organization says on its website. Treatment typically involves shunts placed in the patient’s head to drain excess fluid.
Giannico said he had received three shunts by his 8th birthday. Only the last was successful, he said.
Hospital stays lasted as long as six months, and he missed so much time from school that he repeated a grade in elementary school.
“At one point, I even went blind in one eye,” Giannico said. “I lost a lot of weight. You never knew what the next step was going to bring.”
A nurse at what was then Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow contacted Make-A-Wish when Giannico was 7. When he was asked what wish he wanted most of all, Giannico didn’t hesitate.
“I never really had a birthday party,” because he spent so much time in hospitals, he said. So Make-A-Wish organized a celebration, but no one told Giannico what they had planned for the big day.
“It remains the biggest birthday party that an 8-year-old can ever imagine,” he said.
More than 100 people came, including his doctors and nurses. There was a clown. There was a magician. And, oh, yeah, there was a 55-piece marching band that played “Happy Birthday” for the guest of honor.
“I don’t even know” where the band came from, he said. “They [Make-A-Wish] organized it, and they [the band] showed up.
“They had permits, they blocked off the streets, they had cops, and here comes a 55-piece marching band coming down my block.”
As a child, Giannico collected pennies in a jar he kept in his bedroom. After the party, he took the jar and its contents — $37 in pennies — and donated it to Make-A-Wish. The jar is still kept in its Lake Success office.
Over the years, Giannico has appeared at Make-A-Wish events such as its annual “Walk for Wishes” fundraiser at Eisenhower Park. “No matter how much time I dedicate to Make-A-Wish, it will never be enough to thank them for what they gave me,” he says on the organization’s website.
The party left the young Giannico with renewed confidence — and a stronger determination to live.
Giannico graduated from MacArthur High School in Levittown in 1996 and, three years later, received an associate’s degree in communications from Nassau Community College. He and his wife, Danielle, have two children — Brayden, 9, and Parker, 7.
Giannico goes for annual checkups to make sure the hydrocephalus is under control. His referee work is part of his own brand of physical therapy.
“Pro wrestling has helped tremendously,” he said. “I strengthen the muscles. The muscles are strong.”
Giannico’s story is not unusual among wish recipients, said Gina Florescu, chief marketing officer for Make-A-Wish’s metro New York chapter. Studies show “wish kids” make fewer visits to doctors and hospitals after having their wishes fulfilled, she said.
“We hear from the parents’ perspectives that they get to see their kids be kids again,” she said. “It gives them tools to get them through it, to step out of what they’re dealing with.”
Giannico said that is what happened to him: After years of being a patient, he became a child again.
Now, he is doing something to make another child’s wish come true.
“I owe everything — everything — that I am to Make-A-Wish,” he said. “Without them jump-starting my life, I’m not who I am today. They gave me the vision to know what was out there.”
Tickets for the fundraiser start at $20 and can be purchased at the Create A Pro website, createaprowrestling.com, or at the door on Jan. 20. An autograph signing will be held at 6 p.m. Matches start at 8 p.m.