Kelsey celebrates 20 years with new heart

Kelsey Keen underwent a heart transplant that saved her life 20 years ago. Now, she’s making the most of every day.

Story of survival: In October 1997, Kelsey Keen underwent a heart transplant that saved her life. Now, 20 years later, the Far Northeast resident is an account manager at University Services and a cheerleading coach. PHOTO: TOM WARING

Twenty years ago, Kelsey Keen was a very sick 6-year-old girl.

A first-grader at St. Martha Elementary School, she went to a pediatrician after experiencing pain. Tests showed that a piece of a tumor had developed in the little girl’s heart and traveled to her brain, causing a stroke.

Kevin and June Keen, her parents, were jolted by the diagnosis and their daughter’s partial paralysis and slurred speech. A second, milder stroke followed, then a third stroke and a heart attack that put her on life support for 11 days.

Doctors determined that she needed a new heart. Within two weeks, a heart became available.

In October 1997, Kelsey received a new heart and a new life. The girl has grown up healthy and is now 26 years old. She works as an account manager at University Services, a drug-testing company, is a cheerleading coach for St. Ephrem CYO and Villa Joseph Marie and owns a home on Newberry Road in the Far Northeast.

While her parents, sisters, family, friends and coworkers made a big deal out of the 20th anniversary of her successful heart transplant, Kelsey sees herself as just another person.

“I have a new heart,” she said, simply.

Over the last 20 years, there’s been no rejection, and Kelsey has lived a normal life, remaining active.

As a youth, she participated in soccer, track and field, swimming, basketball, softball, cheerleading and dance, and was a volleyball player at Archbishop Ryan High School, where she graduated in 2010.

Kelsey has scars from her surgeries, but doesn’t care. She wears a medical alert bracelet when traveling. She takes anti-heart rejection medicine, and will do so for the rest of her life. She takes seven pills a day. She must avoid cats and reptiles. She has no diet restrictions.

Every six months, she has a checkup at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She has an annual stress test, with the next one scheduled for March.

Kelsey does not remember the origins of her ordeal.

“I was 6. I didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

For her 20-year anniversary, there were various celebrations. Her mom came to her house and cooked some of her favorite foods, such as London broil, crabs, baked potatoes, pasta, corn and salad, with cake for dessert. Her family had a bonfire in her backyard.

She had cupcakes at cheerleading practice. Her home, lawn, car and office were decorated with red heart balloons, flowers, ribbons and streamers.

“People were beeping at me, high-fiving me and asking for a hug,” she said.

Kelsey’s family wanted to make sure her 20th anniversary was special.

“Most people don’t get to see 20 years,” said her sister, Krysta.

In those 20 years, there were few complications, though she developed a heart infection and had to undergo open-heart surgery.

“I spent my 18th birthday in the hospital,” she said.

But there was one good part of her stay at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“I got to sign myself out,” she said, noting the birthday that made her an adult.

Kelsey does not like to read about others who have had heart transplants, “because I would freak myself out.”

Kelsey’s heart came from a 2-year-old Toronto boy, Zachary, who died in a case of shaken baby syndrome.

In a recent trip to see Heather, a psychic on Academy Road, the psychic sensed a second person in the room, a boy showing her a heart with a hole in it, wanting to be loved. The boy, Kelsey said, was Zachary.

Kelsey and her family are organ donors.

“You can’t take them with you,” she said.

Krysta Keen noted that former Flyers great Eric Lindros, a Toronto-area native, has been a longtime supporter of her sister, encouraging her to learn to walk after her surgery and staying in touch over the years.

“Her heart’s from Toronto. To me, Kelsey is very strong and Eric Lindros was part of the Legion of Doom. They are both very strong people. To me, that’s fate,” Krysta said.

Ever since the Make-a-Wish Foundation sent her to Disney World, she has loved visiting the resort. Two years ago, as a Christmas present, she took Krysta and her other sister, Karleigh, to Disney. Her mom joined them last year.

“We hope to get another surprise this year,” Krysta said.

While they might not get to go to Disney again so soon, Kelsey’s family is happy to have her healthy after 20 years.

“Everything’s been great,” her mom said. “I thank God every day that I have her.”

“I thank God and am happy that she is here with us and doing well,” her dad said. ••