'Never give up!' John Cena encourages young fan to 'keep fighting' through health issues

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By Kyle Michael Miller

Nine-year-old Nick Santillo has been in and out of hospitals since he was an infant, but thanks in part to the support of WWE superstar John Cena, Nick is facing each day with tenacity and a smile.

Nick — who was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition where part of the heart is critically undeveloped — initially met Cena on TODAY last April. Nick shook hands with Cena and held his championship belt, fulfilling his dreams on World Wish Day.

Rebecca Davis / Today

Now, more than a year later, the two remain connected by a special bond.

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In October, Nick and his dad Mark were attending a live taping of WWE's "Smackdown" when Cena spotted them in the crowd. With the music blasting and the crowd roaring, their sign — "Nick The Stitch Is Here," a reference to Santillo's made-up WWE personality name — did the trick. Once he realized who it was, Cena didn't hesitate: he sprinted up the steps and embraced Nick.

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"He gave me a big hug and asked how am I doing," a shy Nick told TODAY.com. "I said 'I am doing good.'"

Nick (right), with John Cena after their meeting on TODAY.Today

"It was so awesome to see him," Cena told TODAY.com. "I am inspired by Nick." 

"If my running up those steps and saying hi to Nick continues to encourage him to fight to get well, even in a small way, then I absolutely had to do it," Cena explained.

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Then just last week, a lung infection, along with a painful blockage between his gallbladder and liver, landed Nick back in the hospital.

"My poor son was in so much pain," Nick's mom Victoria told TODAY.com. "He was crying and screaming every time someone wanted to examine him." 

During his four days in the hospital, Nick and his John Cena rally towel — adorned with the superstar's "never give up" motto — were inseparable. 

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Now recovered from his most recent illnesses, Nick has returned home, and according to his parents, he's thriving in school and sports. He recently achieved an orange belt in karate, and over the summer, the family visited Disney World, a first for Nick and his brother. 

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Nick, always the fighter, lives each day with Cena's advice in mind: "Keep fighting! Determination will carry you far in life."

Follow TODAY digital dude Kyle Michael Miller on Twitter.