ATLANTA - When 6-month old Kaleb Waddleton rolls the hallways of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, in his "Chicks Dig Scars" t-shirt, he is a bonafide nurse-magnet.
"Every time he comes down, everyone flocks towards him,” says Children’s cardiac nurse Haley Reynolds. “All the doctors are like, "Where is everybody?”
Reynolds says there is just something about this baby, and his parents.
"I've honestly never met more incredible people in my life, and more deserving of this than Kaleb,” she says.
He’s a baby whose parents never expected he would spend half of his young life in a hospital.
"We took him to the pediatrician, they thought he had a cold,” says Kaleb’s mother Marissa.
Kaleb's x-rays revealed something much more serious. His heart was about twice the size it should be -- and it couldn't pump like it should. They call this dilated cardiomyopathy. Within minutes, the clinic was calling for a medical helicopter to airlift Kaleb to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
"That Thursday, we found out he needed a heart transplant,” says Marissa.
Finding a donor heart would take months.
"It's been an emotional rollercoaster, that's for sure,” says Kale Waddleton, Kaleb’s father.
For 13 weeks, they waited. As sick as he was, Kaleb smiled for the camera, ending up on Children's Healthcare of Atlanta’s Facebook page. For Halloween, he wore a pumpkin hat. For Christmas, reindeer’s antlers. In every photo, the same big eyes, the same grin.
"We thought Christmas was going to be the next holiday we spend here, and we accepted that,” says Marissa. “We put a Christmas tree up in our room."
But, December 6th, at exactly 7:40 pm everything changed.
"I heard, 'We have a possible heart.' That's all I heard,” says Kale Waddleton. “And we all started crying."
Within hours, the Covington couple was handing their only child over to the Children’s transplant team.
"Taking him out of our arms was the hardest thing you (could) ever think about,” Kale remembers.
Then, The Waddletons and their family walked outside the front door of Children’s to take a picture with the white transplant flag – posted each time a child undergoes a lifesaving transplant.
"We've seen people out there, we've seen the flag flying and thought, "One day, it's going to be us.,’” says Marissa. “Walking out there, knowing it's my son, it's breathtaking really."
After just 4 hours in the OR, Kaleb had a new heart, donated anonymously by another family unexpectedly losing a child. Right away, his pale cheeks flushed with color. To the Waddletons, the transformation was amazing, and bittersweet. They grieved for the family of his donor.
"So it's very hard,” Marissa says, her voice catching. “But we just have to know that we are so grateful for that family, that they chose to donate, so that Kaleb can go home for Christmas."
And just one week after Kaleb received his new heart, he and his parents left Children's. Nurse Haley Reynolds says being a part of Kaleb’s journey has been powerful.
"It kind of feels like your job has meaning,” she says. “For me, it makes me remember why I became a nurse, and why I work for Children's."
Walking the halls, with this baby who looks so healthy and vibrant, Kale Waddleton says he is so grateful, and so ready to take his son home.
“Kaleb's going to have a good Christmas.” He says. “The best Christmas. We're going to make sure of that.
Kale Waddington says he would love for Kaleb to become the face of “Donate Life.” He says, “I think Kaleb could change a lot of minds.”
Before Kaleb, Kale Waddleton says he never understood the power of organ donation, what a gift it can be. Now, he says, he does. Every time he looks into his baby son’s eyes.
To read more about Kaleb's journey, visit his Facebook page, Prayers for Kaleb! https://www.facebook.com/groups/1000241916663489/