Chris and Jill Davis made their way from room to room at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s pediatric intensive care unit. A visit in July inspired how the Orioles’ first baseman and his wife spent their Monday morning. This trip in the afternoon was made by choice.
They stopped by rooms of little girls who, like their three daughters, love princesses. They met two boys who, like their two youngest children, were twins. They brightened the days of families who had children, like their own once had, facing congenital heart defects.
The Davises’ visit came hours after the announcement of their $3 million donation to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, the largest the hospital has received from a Baltimore sports figure. The gift will go toward a state-of-the-art hybrid catheterization and operating room to treat children with congenital heart defects. The space will be called the Evelyn Kay Davis Congenital Hybrid Catheterization Suite, named after the Davises’ daughter, Evie, who was born with a ventricular septal defect in January 2018.
“We already had a soft spot for the hospital and the kids and the families that we’ve met that are in the hospital every day, and that just made it more realistic to us,” Davis said. “It gave us a better appreciation for what they go through. We experienced it on a very small scale, but it was enough.”
The project will cost about $10 million in total, said Mohan Suntha, the president and CEO of UMMC, but the donation accelerated the timeline from several years to 18-24 months. The facility will double UMCH’s capacity for children’s heart procedures, with an expected increase of 500 procedures per year while adding increased flexibility to the hospital’s scheduling, said Geoff Rosenthal, co-director of UMHC’s children’s heart program. Rajabrata Sarkar, the interim chair of the department of surgery, noted that the facility will not only allow UMMC to have the best technology, but also give it the chance to recruit the best staff. Hospital executives called it a “transformational gift” that would “impact generations.”
“It doesn’t really seem real right now,” Davis said.
Davis, 33, is the oldest and longest tenured Oriole. 2019 marked the third straight year he was Baltimore’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors a player’s humanitarian efforts. The Orioles’ nomination announcement referenced more than 10 organizations that Davis and Jill have assisted.
That community involvement includes regular visits to UMHC, one of which came during the All-Star break in July on somewhat short notice. While there, Davis and Jill learned of the hospital’s need for an improved hybrid operating room. They had been searching for an area where they could make an impact “on a little bit larger scale,” Davis said, and on the drive home, he and Jill agreed this was the opportunity to do so.
The native Texans are grateful for the impact they’ll have in Baltimore.
“We wanted to do something big,” Jill said, before Davis added, “Here.”
‘A ball of fire’
Jill’s background is in nursing. She worked at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children until she and Davis moved to Baltimore the offseason after the Orioles acquired him in a trade with the Texas Rangers in 2011. She has spent time volunteering at UMHC’s newborn intensive care unit.
“Her heart for kids,” Davis said, “it’s unmatched.”
So when a technician left to get a doctor during a 2017 ultrasound of her twins, Jill “knew what that meant.”
“That feeling that I’d never felt before and you don’t feel unless you’ve been through it, I knew something was wrong with one of them,” recalled Jill, who was 22 weeks pregnant at the time. “I was just so fearful.”
One of the fetuses had a ventricular septal defect, or a hole in the heart.
“It hit me a lot harder than I thought it would,” Davis said, “and it stayed with me a lot longer than I thought it would.”
Evie and Grace Davis were born Jan. 23, 2018, with Evie admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) shortly after birth. With their oldest daughter, Ella, at home and Grace in the regular newborn nursery, Evie spent six days in the NICU, a time period Davis called “very, very small scale” compared with what other parents go through.
“It was hard for Chris to even go in there,” Jill said. “She’s got all these tubes and she’s so tiny and it just gives you a whole new appreciation and understanding of what these parents go through when something’s wrong with their child.”
By a checkup when Evie was 3 months old, the hole had gotten smaller, with the doctors telling her parents it seemed likely to be gone before she turned 2. The hole closed naturally before their next appointment ahead of her first birthday. She remains healthy and no longer has a need for checkups on her heart.
“She’s a ball of fire,” Davis said.
Evie’s medical issues preceded Davis’ poorest season as a professional, a 2018 campaign in which his .168 batting average was the worst by a qualified major league hitter. Monday, he declined to blame those struggles on his daughter’s health.
“I’m not going to say it didn’t affect me, but I feel like I have played long enough to be able to kind of separate the two,” Davis said. “It was on my mind a lot more than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t ever expect anything like this to come up. I wasn’t prepared at all. I don’t know if anything would’ve prepared us, but it’s just a completely different scale for me.
“Baseball is my job. This was my life. Baseball is gonna stop someday. I’m going to be a dad for as long as I live.”
Davis struggled again in 2019, the fourth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract he signed with Baltimore after reaching free agency following a 2015 season in which he won his second home run title in three years. This year, he set major league records for consecutive hitless at-bats and plate appearances while being reduced to a bench role by season’s end.
But Davis credits his charitable efforts for helping him separate from whatever he’s dealt with on the baseball field. Rosenthal views those tribulations as a strength.
“He’s our favorite first baseman and will always be,” Rosenthal said. “He has experienced some struggles and he’s overcome them, and so I think he’s exemplifying for all the kids that we take care this notion of, yeah, when times are hard, you work through it. You roll up your sleeves and work through it.
“He continues to be a role model for our kids.”
The Davises needed convincing to make the donation public, with their focuses being on helping rather than notoriety. But when the hospital’s executives brought up the attention that a public donation would bring to the children’s heart program, they were swayed.
Then came the offer to name the new hybrid operating room. Naming it after Evie was “perfect,” Jill said.
“The only thing we were hesitant [about] is we have two other daughters, and what are they going to think when they realize we named something after Evie and not them,” Jill said. “We decided they’re going to understand why we did what we did.
“We’re hoping in the future, maybe, there will be other opportunities to do stuff in honor of our other daughters, too.”
Davis and Jill have been spending a good amount of time lately discussing their future and what it could hold once his baseball career ends. Even when it does, they have no plans to stop making efforts such as Monday’s.
“The more time I have, the more I’ll be able to dedicate to things like this,” Davis said. “I wanted to get involved in the community that I was gonna be in for however many years, and once you dive in and you start to meet some of these people and you start to work in and around the community, it’s addicting. You just want to keep doing it as much as you can.”
Before Monday’s visit to the PICU, Davis and Jill stopped by a wall at the hospital that listed them as donors of between $1 million and $5 million and posed for pictures. When they arrived upstairs, the staff was going through a mock code, a simulation to prepare for the possibility that one of the children needs immediate, life-saving attention. Steven Czinn, the chair of the hospital’s department of pediatrics, pointed out that about 20 people were participating in the scenario, demonstrating the team effort it takes to help the children in the unit. The Davises’ visits help, too.
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“As important as their gift is, these visits are equally or more important,” Czinn said. “When Chris and Jill come to visit the kids, they’re visiting the kids. They’re totally focused on the children, and the impact of those visits on the kids, on the families, the way it brightens their day, the way it brightens the family’s outlook, you can’t really put a price tag on that.”
Joined by teammate Dwight Smith Jr., Davis and Jill stopped by the rooms, taking pictures and handing out hats Davis had signed. All three wore Orioles jerseys.
“With the team dynamic that we have now, I’m really — I don’t want to say the old guy, but the older guy, and I want to, one, continue the relationships that we’ve already started, two, build new relationships, and three, I want to show some of the younger guys what it’s like and how rewarding it can be to give back to the city that you play in,” Davis said.
Monika Bauman, the hospital’s director of patient care services, women’s and children’s health, found Jill and hugged her, telling her that several nurses started tearing up when they heard the news of the donation. Various staff members repeatedly thanked the Davises and Smith for committing the time to help make the children’s days a little better.
After all, that’s at the root of Monday’s donation. The Davises have called Baltimore home since 2011. Ella was born in the city. They’ve gotten a dog and a home in Baltimore. Davis’ contract has three more years on it, so they figure there are more memories to be made. Ahead of the Orioles’ final home game, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said Davis will be part of the team when it regroups for the 2020 season in spring training in February. Beyond that, though, his status with the team is not guaranteed.
Monday’s donation, however, means the family’s impact in Baltimore will go far beyond the length of Davis’ contract.
“We love Baltimore,” Davis said. “Baltimore will always have a place in our hearts.”