Nothing short of a miracle

by Sonja J. Keith

Fourteen-year-old Keegan Smith’s contagious smile offers no hint of the serious health challenges he has faced since the day he was born.

Keegan had a heart transplant when he was only three weeks old. This summer, he underwent a kidney transplant. Today, he is an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School, feeling better than he has in a long time.

“He’s nothing short of a miracle,” said his mom, Dawn Ragan.

Dawn, who has lupus, said while her pregnancy with Keegan was high-risk, it was uneventful. “Everything throughout the pregnancy looked to be completely normal. He was a full-term pregnancy,” she said, adding that his heart defect wasn’t discovered until the day of his birth.

Because Keegan ingested some fluid during delivery, he was taken to the nursery for examination and treatment. A heart defect was detected and he was diagnosed with Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. “He wasn’t struggling at the time in any way, but with a defect like that if you don’t act right away it turns into a life and death situation within 48 hours.”

Dawn is doubtful that the defect would’ve been detected had he not been placed in the nursery instead of her room after delivery. She said had her little family returned home, Keegan probably would’ve died within a few days. “If he hadn’t ingested that fluid, we may not have found his defect,” she said. “To me, that was our first miracle.”

With his health situation critical, Keegan was transferred to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where he underwent a week of testing. Not only was Keegan placed on the transplant list, he went to the top. “It was very scary. With a condition like that, it was a race against time. Keegan had to get a heart fast.”

Dawn said those weeks are a big fog. Keegan’s parents, Dawn and Britt Smith, were both 19 and freshmen in college. “We were children ourselves just trying to grow up real fast,” Dawn said. “We were handling the biggest challenge we had ever faced in our lives. It was definitely an emotional roller coaster.”

Dawn is thankful for the “amazing support system” of family and friends that has surrounded them. “I don’t think Keegan was ever alone.”

The family waited for 12 days and then a donor heart became available. Keegan spent two more weeks in the hospital, recovering from the heart transplant and finally was able to go home with his parents when he was 5-weeks-old. He began taking anti-rejection medicine and checkups were frequent but eventually tapered off. “He has never rejected his heart,” Dawn said. “It has always grown with him beautifully.”

With a suppressed immune system, Keegan was re-admitted to the hospital from time to time through around age 5 when his body battled common illnesses. “It was never anything because of the heart not performing as it should,” Dawn said.

At around age 5, things leveled off and his health was stable. “He was just your normal little guy,” Dawn said, explaining that he participated in activities like other children his age. “From ages 5 to 12, he had a really good run.”

In October 2013, Keegan was hospitalized for two and a half weeks with a severe case of pneumonia. In February 2014, he was back in the hospital battling another bout of pneumonia and a couple of other viruses. “You can’t pinpoint exactly what caused the kidney failure but in talking to the doctors, they describe it as a perfect storm of just two back-to-back pneumonias, the viruses he had and being dehydrated but still flushing his medicine through his system. Everything combined to shut his kidneys down.”

Keegan underwent Hemodialysis for the next few months, traveling two to three times each week to the hospital for the intense treatment. In April of that year, he had surgery to insert a special catheter for Peritoneal dialysis to be administered at his home while Keegan was asleep. “That allowed us to return to some version of normal life until we could find a donor kidney,” Dawn said.

Keegan said the second dialysis procedure was less painful but he looked forward to no longer needing the treatment or equipment. “A day didn’t go by that I didn’t wish it was out of my room.”

Dawn said there was an option to seek a donor among family and friends, or to place Keegan’s name on a transplant list. “His dad, fortunately, was a wonderful match for Keegan,” she said, adding that the long process of testing began in September 2014. “He was the one and only person we tested. He had the perfect kidney for him.”

In July 2015, the transplant surgery took place in Little Rock. Britt’s kidney was removed at Baptist Medical Center. Keegan received the kidney at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.  Both have recovered well from the procedures.

Keegan said he and his dad are pretty close and it means a lot for him to share one of his kidneys. “I’m definitely better than I’ve ever been, I believe.”

Keegan returned home six days after the surgery. “Keegan was a rock star,” Dawn said of her son’s efforts during recovery. “Everything just went beautifully. His doctors said it couldn’t have gone better.”

Keegan recovered from the kidney transplant in time for the first day of school at St. Joseph. He likes the eighth grade and enjoys most being with his friends. Keegan also likes to draw and would like to be a computer animator. Dragons are his favorite subject to create. “I can make them so many different ways.”

Keegan said isolation was one of the most difficult challenges he faced prior to his kidney transplant. Nightly dialysis treatments made it difficult for him to spend the night with friends.

At his six-week checkup, the doctor gave Keegan the green light to return to some of the physical activities he enjoys, like playing golf and s
wimming. He will take anti-rejection medicine the rest of his life.

Keegan also asked the doctor if he could return to his church activities. “He has that kind of heart that makes me admire him,” Dawn said.

Keegan points to his faith and family, especially his parents, in seeing him through his health challenges. He said God and prayer helped a lot. He also gets support from his stepmom, Allie Smith, and his two younger sisters, Paityn Ragan and Kennedy Smith.

For others who might be facing serious health problems, Keegan encourages them to think about others who are in worse situations. “When you think it’s the worse, think of others and be thankful it’s only what you have.”

Dawn added it’s important to find the positives in every situation. “God and the power of prayer have gotten us through this and nothing else.” She encourages others facing tough diagnoses to take it day by day. “From a parent perspective, you have to be the rock. You have to be strong. You have to point out the good in the situation for that loved one so they are not surrounded by all the negative and the dark. You have to constantly look for the end goal and the finish line.

“It will happen. You just have to be patient with it all.”

Dawn said Keegan is very strong and positive, with rarely a complaint. “He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He takes it all in stride and keeps that smile.” She remembers one particular night when she was emotional. Keegan had been in pain and they were still getting accustomed to the overnight dialysis. “He said, ‘Mom, stop worrying about me. God has always taken care of me and he’s not going to stop now.’”

Dawn describes her son as a fighter and adds that there have been plenty of miracles already in his life. “He’s my comeback kid,” she said. “He’s had too many miracles to list. You know them when you see them. He’s my proof every day that miracles do happen.”