Schoolchildren donate to CHOA for heart transplant baby

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

When asked about how she feels about a gift to the hospital that saved her baby, Marissa Waddleton can’t find any words.

Tears, and plenty of them, will have to do for now.

Linda Floyd, center, office manager at North Henry Academy in McDonough, presents a $525 check made out to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to Marissa Waddleton, right, while her mother Lisa McClendon left, holds toddler Kaleb Waddleton, as members of the school’s first, second and third grades look on. Photo by James Saxton

Back on Valentine’s Day, schoolchildren at North Henry Academy donated in the baby’s honor a barrage of coins, wadded-up bills and personal checks to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) in a special occasion they appropriately called Heart Day.

It was a new heart that saved infant Kaleb Waddleton 15 months ago. On Thursday the broadly grinning 18-month-old toddler was bright, alert and energetic as his mother and grandmother accepted the gifts to CHOA in a special ceremony at the school.

Kaleb’s heart journey began in early September 2015, when, at just three months old, he was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which his heart’s main pumping chamber was enlarged and weakened.

The diagnosis came suddenly. The baby had contracted what parents Kale and Marissa Waddleton thought was a small cold, with a dry cough, just before the Labor Day weekend. Three days later, with the baby neither eating nor sleeping, the couple took him to a clinic where doctors observed labored breathing and dehydration, discovered an abnormal EKG, and ordered a helicopter ride to CHOA.

Doctors there put Kaleb on a ventilator and a feeding tube and urgently listed him as a top priority to receive a heart transplant. A heart of the right size with a good tissue match could have been difficult to find, but to the delight of the Waddletons and hundreds of family and friends praying for Baby Kaleb, a heart came three months later.

Pausing last week just after a donation ceremony on behalf of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta were, from left, Marissa Waddleton, her mother Lisa McClendon and Marissa’s son Kaleb Waddleton, who received a heart transplant 15 months ago at CHOA. Special photo

The sturdy infant tolerated the surgery well. He had to wait 13 days in NICU before Marissa could hold him again. Today Kaleb’s medical condition is quite good, Marissa said, and though he’ll have to take anti-rejection medicine the rest of his life, “he has a chance at living a normal life like others his age,” she said through grateful tears.

And the donation to the hospital undertaken by the school – the grandparents of Kaleb, Tommy and Lisa McClendon, are members of North Henry Baptist Church and Tommy is a member of the school’s ministry team – is touching in a way that Marissa said is difficult to explain.

“There’s nothing we could do for CHOA that is enough,” she said. “They were amazing. They saved Kaleb’s life. There were so many prayers, and so many things had to happen just right for him to survive. He’s a miracle!”

“It was an awesome feeling,” agreed North Henry Academy office manager Linda Floyd, who coordinated the fund drive and Thursday’s ceremony. “It’s brought all of us closer together. We can all see clearly that God can work amazing miracles.”

Marissa’s mother Lisa McClendon was resolute in her gratitude for the generosity expressed through the schoolchildren’s gifts. “We owe our lives to CHOA. That precious gift leaves me speechless. There are always signs of God, if you just slow down long enough to see them.”