How did a 7-year old little boy from Tennessee with a broken heart (literally) come into the life of a workaholic, childless, 24-year-old from Philadelphia? Two years later, I’m still trying to sort that out myself.
While working as a multimedia producer at a healthcare organization in 2012, I filmed a lot of sad stories. People sat down in front of my camera and shared their struggles. But one particular story struck a chord.
Julie Keeton shared with me the story of her son, Weston. She was far from home in Philadelphia, with an infant and her 7-year-old son, while her 5-year-old-son, Weston, was in-patient at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia waiting for a heart and double lung transplant. Her other children lived in Tennessee with her husband and would visit Philadelphia frequently. Surprisingly, we had more in common than just our connection to healthcare—we enjoyed pumpkin beer, reading TMZ religiously, and had a mutual love of scarves. She invited me to meet Weston, who would not leave the hospital until his life-saving transplant.
Within five minutes of being introduced to Weston, we were sitting on the floor with putting together a toy racecar track. While lost in conversation about superheroes, the hospital setting seemed to disappear.
Over the next two years, I began visiting Weston and fell in love with the brave little joker who had an obsession with Flaming Hot Cheetos. Visits were filled with cartoons and video games. He could often be found visiting with friends he had made on his unit’s floor, and riding his tricycle down the hallway.
Despite being in the middle of this upheaval in her life, Julie became a terrific friend to me. We would talk about everything. When one of us would have a crappy day, we’d go to dinner and talk about our problems over appetizers and beer. Even though she already had seven kids of her own, she took me under her wing like the big sister I never had.
Visits with Weston began to impact my life. I grew up as an only child filled in a household of quiet most of time. Being surrounded by her seven children running around laughing was a beautiful culture shock. Although it was the darkest hour for the family, they brought me into their fold and for the first time in a very long time, I felt that I was part of a real family.
At the time our paths crossed, I had begun shying away from activities leading me away from my comfort zone. During my teen years, I dealt with a chronically ill mother. The way my family coped was drastically different than the Keeton family. Instead of rallying together, it drove us to isolation. Bottling up my emotions privately was the only way I’d ever known. But Weston and his family introduced a new way of coping, one that found solace during a heart-wrenching journey.
Their family had uprooted their lives to save Weston, and had every right in the world to be closed off to the world. But instead they did the complete opposite. Although they were living a life not many could fathom, Weston and his family had been embraced by the Philadelphia community. Opening their hearts to let others in allowed Weston and his family to be uplifted. It brought me to the glaring realization that any life worth living needed to be shared. And although letting my guard down was out of my comfort zone, the reward of having a rich life full of meaning was well worth it. For Weston, there was no comfort zone. He had to struggle to live, literally, but he persevered. If the little boy with the broken heart could do it, well so could I.
Weston also taught me that life doesn’t necessarily go as planned, even when we have the best of intentions. In December 2013, Weston finally got his call for transplant after waiting for nearly three years. A surgery that was thought to start his road to physical recovery led to a road of unexpected struggle. Three months after transplant, Weston passed away on March 23, 2014. When I reached Weston’s room that day, it was drastically different than any other time. Instead of cartoons playing on the television and beeping of machines, there was silence.
Rather than being isolated with their own grief, Julie and her husband welcomed a steady stream of mourners from the hospital who had also fallen in love with the Keeton family. They gave hugs, dried tears and thanked staff for their care. The true meaning of family and community was demonstrated as they mourned alongside others grieving their son.
Walking out of the hospital after saying my final goodbyes to Weston brought me to me knees. I put my hands over my mouth to try to make the sobs stop but they were too strong. It hit me that not only would I never see Weston again but I would lose the sense of family that I had found in the unlikeliest place.
Five months have passed since Weston died, and the pain is still fresh to so many who loved him. However, he continues to make an impact on lives. Thanks to Weston, I have a better quality of life by welcoming more experiences. From returning to my passion of writing, to making the effort to reach out to friends when I need support—a richer life is now in the process of being lived.
Some may say Weston’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but I disagree. I originally referred to Weston as the Miracle on 34th Street because he had received his transplant right before Christmas, and the hospital was located on 34th Street. But his transplant was not the only miracle I witnessed. The ability to experience the true meaning of family, commitment and community Weston brought together was the real miracle.
To learn more about Weston and how his family honoring his legacy, click here.
To register as an organ donor, click here.
To read the initial “Miracle on 34th Street” article, click here.