ATLANTA - Two-year-old Kinsley Keeling lives like she's making up for lost time.
"Her enjoyment of life is so pure, and so exuberant, all the time," says Mary Beth Keeling, Kinsley's mother.
Keeling says it's almost as if her youngest daughter can sense, at her tender age that this is her second chance.
"It's surreal," says her mother. "And, it's almost like that chapter of her life is closed. And, that fear, it's nice to not live with that every day."
Mary Beth and Micah Keeling had no idea what lay ahead when Kinsley was born healthy in Cincinnati in the fall of 2014.
"She was an amazingly beautiful little 5-pound baby in November," Mary Beth Keeling says. "And, we took her home with her big sister and had a glorious 10 days as a family of 4."
Then Kinsley suddenly stopped nursing. Tests showed she'd picked up a stomach virus that should not have been a big deal.
"But because she was just so tiny, and had zero immune system as an infant, it just went wild in her body," her mother says.
The virus attacked Kinsley's heart. Almost overnight, it began to falter.
"We took her to the emergency room, and she was put in the trauma bay," her mother says. "We were there for 35 days."
Kinsley pulled through. With the help of medication and frequent checkups, her weakened heart held on, for two years. Then, she landed back in the ICU in the spring of 2017, this time at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. Only now, Kinsley's heart was failing so quickly, surgeons put her on a Berlin Heart pump, to buy time, while they searched for a donor's heart.
"Her body had a machine beside her, but it was working, better than what she'd ever experienced before," Mary Beth Keeling says.
For a few weeks, Kinsley rallied again, playing in her hospital bed with her big sister Campbell, acting like herself again. Finally, on July 31, 2017, after 3 and a half months at Children's, doctors found a heart for Kinsley, donated anonymously by another family losing a child. Mary Beth felt a rush of emotions, gratitude mixed with grief for her donor family.
"(I felt) incredible sadness for that amazing family, that had made an overwhelming and amazing choice in the face of their darkest hour, to donate a heart to our child," Mary Beth Keeling remembers. The Keelings explained to Kinsley what was about to happen.
"We told her, 'There is an amazing family out there Kinsley, who is blessing you with the gift of a life again, you're going to get a new heart today," her mother says. "And the first thing she said was, 'And, then me go home?'"
After just a week, Kinsley did go home, with her new heart.
"And within a couple of weeks, my husband and I would look at each other and say, 'She's back to normal; this is amazing,'" MaryBeth Keeling says.
A new heart brings a new normal. Transplantation is considered a bridge, not a cure for young heart recipients like Kinsley.
"There is still a lot of unknown, about what her adult life will look like," says her mother. "But we're overjoyed that she's here. She's playing."
At her 6-week post-transplant checkup, Kinsley is watching a video on her mom's cellphone as a transplant clinic staffer tries to coax her into taking a series of deep breaths. Mary Beth takes away the phone, trying to get Kinsley to focus, and she bursts into tears. For a second, the Keelings get a little taste of "the terrible twos."
But no complaints here.They're too busy feeling grateful Kinsley Keeling is getting her spark back.
"It's just the gift of happiness, and the chance of life," Kinsley's mother says. "I have my little girl back, and I would not have her without a new heart. Just hearing her amazing little laughter every day, it's a constant gift."