A birthday is special for any child, but for Kaleb Buffington and his family, his 11th birthday could be considered a miracle. Late in 2020, Kaleb received a heart transplant at James Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital in Nashville.
Kaleb was born with Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), which affected the rhythm of his heart. Since his birth on May 12, 2010 in Missouri, he has been in and out of children’s hospitals in St. Louis and Nashville, as doctors tried to find the right medications and the right dosages for him.
A few days before his second birthday, things took a turn for the worse. He was flown to St. Louis, where he had an Internal Cardiac Defibrillator (ICD) implanted. Later he had to have another surgery to cut a nerve ending that supplied adrenaline which was causing his heart to speed up when he got excited.
Kaleb’s mother, Jessica Buffington, is a single mom raising three children. She has an older daughter, LeeAnn, and two sons Arron and Kaleb. Arron had some disabilities also, so she decided to relocate her family to Portland to be near family for support.
Kaleb became a patient of Dr. Andrew Radbill at Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital. He was seen often to have his medicines adjusted and to have the batteries changed in his ICD. However, in 2019 while playing outside in a nearby creek, his ICD began to shock him.
His mother and a neighbor heard him calling for help and were able to pull him out of the creek. He was rushed to the children’s hospital in Nashville. According to his mother the ICD shocked him more than 20 times that day.
It was during that hospital stay that Dr. Radbill and Buffington met in the hallway. They began talking about Kaleb’s condition.
Buffington said, “We talked about a lot of things and how we were running out of options for treatment. That’s when he looked at me, took a long deep breath and said the words I always hoped and prayed I would never have to hear — heart transplant. I had to ask him later what he said after that because honestly those two words left me speechless.”
When Kaleb began having more heart issues on March of 2020, the possibility of a heart transplant became a reality. The family agreed to meet with the transplant teams. During one of those meetings Kaleb was asked why he felt he wanted a new heart.
Kaleb answered, “I’m ready to be a normal little boy and do the things a normal little boy can do. I wanna play baseball.”
That was when his mother decided to put her faith and trust in the doctors that would care for him and prayed fervently. Things happened quickly after she made that decision.
On Sept. 20, Kaleb passed out as he walked into the hospital for a meeting and was admitted. On Sept. 25, the doctors gave his mother two options. She could leave him in the hospital until a heart was available placing him at the top of the list, as an urgent case, or they could take him home and be placed on the regular list to wait his turn. She chose to leave him in the hospital to await an available heart.
She returned home for a few days to handle some business and to be with her other children. On Sept. 30, her phone rang around 11 p.m. When she answered, she heard the words — ‘We have a heart.’
Surgery was scheduled for the next morning. When Buffington walked into the room the day of the surgery, she found Kaleb and a man talking. Kaleb had a sheet of paper and a pen in his hand.
He looked at his mother, as he said, “I just gave my permission for them to take my broken sick heart and research LQTS so maybe it will help other kids who may get as sick as I am.”
The Oct. 1 heart transplant was successful. He received intense medical care in the days immediately following the surgery, as his body adjusted to the transplant.
Buffington said, “I am so thankful and blessed that God gave my boy a second chance of life, but I think about and pray for the other child’s parents and family every single day. They made a decision I am not sure I could ever make. I pray that they find peace and comfort somehow, someday.
“I hope they know that I am so very grateful to them and thank them from the bottom of my heart — and if someday they decide they want to hear their baby’s heartbeat, Kaleb says he will let them listen as many times and for as long as they want.”
May 12, 2021 was a very special birthday to celebrate for Kaleb, his first after the transplant. He even got to share it with his brother who also had a May birthday. It was quite a celebration at Richland Park.
Buffington said making a home and a life in a small town has been one of the best decisions she ever made. She acknowledged the support from many in the community. She praises her dad, Dr. John Taylor and his wife Rita, J. W. Wiseman Elementary School, and her family and friends in Missouri.
Members of Portland First Free Will Baptist Church came to sanitize her home from top to bottom, before Kaleb returned home in the middle of the COVID pandemic. She also appreciated everyone who sent texts, phone calls, and videos to cheer Kaleb.