New Orleans, La.- Teenagers should be looking forward to prom and ball games, getting a driver's license or graduation. Instead, some teens look forward to the day when a heart transplant will give the opportunity to truly live again.
Gathered inside a room at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson, three teenaged friends are bonded by their hearts.
14-year-old Justice Baham, 16-year-old TJ Sonnier and 17-year-old Kaylon Marshall share an experience no one should have to face as an adolescent; a diagnosis of a heart problem that only a transplant could solve.
Ochsner Physician's Assistant and transplant coordinator Megan Owens says the teens were "healthy kids until they weren't."
Kaylon Marshall played high school football in Shreveport. In game after game he played through fatigue and shortness of breath. He brushed it off as being out of shape until the day he collapsed at school.
"When the doctors told me I needed a heart transplant, yeah, I was sad," seems an understatement as Kaylon describes the events that ended his football dreams and started his wait for a lifesaving organ.
Justice Baham says his case started out when he felt like he had a cold. A chest x-ray revealed an enlarged heart.
For all three teenagers, the journey brought them to Ochsner Medical Center where they would wait for a transplant and undergo stopgap measures to buy them time.
The teens and families would live at the hospital, sharing fears, frustrations and hopes.
Justice says, "they understand what you're going through more because they've gone through the same thing, so they understand what you're feeling."
TJ and Justice both underwent transplant surgery.
Owens says "It is so important for us to have organ donors, because they little kids, they're waiting and they're waiting and they're waiting."
Kaylon's wait goes on, his heart assisted by a device that helps it pump better.
Back in November, he thought the long-awaited heart had come,"My mom came in there and said, 'we got a heart!' I woke up out he bed, I tripped and fell and I went to go sit in the car. I didn't need nothing. I was just ready to go!"
But, that donor heart was not quite right.
"I cried for like a week and so now, I try not to think about getting that call every day. I just go with the flow."
Nationwide, 1,760 children need organ transplants to save their lives. It is an uneasy wait. Now, instead of focusing on next football season, Kaylon ponders uncomfortable realities, "I mean I just grasped the fact that someone has to die for me to get the heart."
Owens says most of the children who have had transplants go back to their normal lives. They go to school. They play sports. "they lead pretty great lives."
Kaylon says when he gets his heart, "I don't think I'm gonna stop moving! I'm gonna always have to be doing something."
The pediatric heart transplant program returned to Ochsner Medical Center in 2009 after a hiatus brought on by Hurricane Katrina.
Since 2019, surgeons have performed five transplants on children.
In Louisiana, becoming an organ donor is as simple as checking a box when you get your driver's license.