Thanksgiving will take on a special meaning to Darius Butler this year: His little girl is finally home.
Milan Faith Butler, the 3-month-old daughter of the Carolina Panthers' cornerback, was discharged from the hospital Wednesday, four weeks after undergoing open-heart surgery to repair two of her veins.
Darius Butler, who missed the Panthers' game against Minnesota on Oct. 30 following his daughter's surgery, received the news on his cell phone that she had been released from the intensive care unit at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.
"It's definitely a gift from God and something to be thankful for right before Thanksgiving, for her to be going home," he said.
Butler flew to south Florida earlier this week to visit his daughter and participate in a charitable Thanksgiving event through his foundation. He said Milan will have to use an oxygen tank periodically over the next two weeks, but is expected to make a full recovery.
"It's just a blessing that everything is working out how it is," Butler said. "It's been a long recovery time. She was in there longer than they expected, setbacks here and there. But we never lost faith. Me and my family stayed prayed up.
"I'm glad to see her go home. It's another big step. She's still not her normal self, yet, but she's well on her way."
Butler, then with New England, flew home from the Patriots' training camp in Boston to be there when Milan was born Aug. 3. She was about 9 pounds at birth and seemed healthy.
Butler and his girlfriend, Brittney Talley, noticed Milan took short breaths, but were not too alarmed. But when Milan lost her appetite and began eating less in October, Talley took her to the doctor.
The next day, Oct. 27, she was in the hospital for surgery on two veins that were not circulating her blood properly. Butler, claimed off waivers by the Panthers on Sept. 7, said the three hours Milan spent in the operating room felt like the longest of his life.
"Any time you're going into surgery, nothing's guaranteed," he said. "It was something you had no control over. All you could really do was pray that the doctors did things correctly and made the right decisions and it went well."
After Milan experienced complications following the surgery, Butler called Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who told him to stay with his family as long as he needed. He and Talley, who met while attending Connecticut, also have a 3-year-old-daughter, Maya.
Butler slept several nights at the hospital, where a family member hung up a poster with Milan's name and baby picture that visitors signed when they stopped by.
Butler, 25, returned to Charlotte when Milan was taken off the heart-lungs machine the following week and was able to breathe on her own. But it was three more weeks before doctors decided to let her go home.
"We stayed prayerful. We stayed faithful throughout the whole thing," Butler said. "She's progressing. She's getting better every day, and that's all you can ask for."
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, whose infant son was born during the offseason, sympathized with Butler, his training partner when both were preparing for the draft three years ago.