Former Bearcat Kendey Eaton, center, is shown with her mother and father, Shelley and Ken Eaton. The family has a long history with Northwest Missouri State University. The entire family has been on a journey as Shelley’s battle with a cold turned into a near-death experience.
The following article was printed in the June 11 issue of The Forum, Maryville. Shelley is a graduate of Rock Port High School and has family in the Rock Port area.
By CODY THORN
June 6 marked the 28th wedding anniversary of Ken and Shelley Eaton, a Mound City couple with deep ties to Maryville.
Both educators earned their master’s degrees from Northwest Missouri State University. Their daughter, Kendey, just wrapped up playing her final two years of college basketball for the Bearcats. Their youngest daughter, Joeigh, is about to start her final year of college at Northwest.
While not exactly a milestone anniversary that 20, 25, 30 or 50 years brings, the past two have been nothing less than cherished.
The entire Eaton family has been on a long journey, as Shelley’s battle with a cold turned into a near-death experience over the past year and half. The trials and tribulations the family encountered brought them closer together – even when they had to spend weeks away from their mother and wife after a heart transplant on April 23.
“You know they didn’t just go get it off the shelf,” Shelley Eaton said of her new heart she got at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “There is an emotional side of it (a transplant) as well. We were all organ donors and have been before this. If you can give a piece of yourself to help someone else carry on, it is the greatest gift you can give someone.”
Just a cold
Little did the Eaton family know how much a cough and sniffles would impact their lives.
Kendey was settling into her role as a scorer for Austin Meyer’s basketball team. A transfer from North Central Missouri College in Trenton, she scored 26 points in her second game at Northwest against Minnesota State-Crookston. She scored 10 or more points in seven of her first 13 games in Maryville. The scoring prowess she showcased at Mound City – the Class 1 champion her senior year – continued all season.
When MIAA play began, Kendey stayed hot by scoring 28 combined points in games against Northeastern State and Central Oklahoma on the road. About that same time, school was resuming in Mound City. Her father, Ken, is the superintendent of the school, while her mom worked as a counselor and librarian.
Shelley battled the cold and told herself she would be OK, but if she started feeling badly, she would go home. She made it through the day and started talking to another teacher, who also had a cold. They were comparing symptoms which were very similar – except Shelley felt a heavy pressure in her chest.
“Mine was a little different and caused all these issues and her cold went away,” Shelley said.
Shelley was having problems breathing that first weekend back and Ken took her to an urgent care clinic to be examined. She got a breathing treatment and was told it was pneumonia.
The breathing issues continued the next day and Joeigh, home from break from her sophomore year at North Central Missouri College, called her dad.
Joeigh drove her mom to see Dr. Richard Burke in Rock Port, and not long after, she was headed to Lincoln, Nebraska. The pressure Shelley felt in her chest turned out to be 20 pounds of fluid around her heart.
The cold wasn’t in her lungs, rather it built up around her heart and enlarged it. Her heart rate was between 160 and 180 beats per minute and the breathing issues came from the fluid around her heart, masking what was originally thought to be pneumonia.
“I called my dad during lunch to see how she was doing and I remember my dad saying, ‘Kendey, this is really bad. Your mom is really sick.’” Kendey said. “I guess I hadn’t fathomed how sick she really was and I was really upset.”
Kendey headed to a weightlifting workout and her teammates noticed the usually bubbly, smiling blonde wasn’t her normal self.
Something was off. Everyone soon learned her mom was in the hospital.
The workout was a blessing in disguise, as she turned her attention toward it and focused on the task at hand. That turned into a similar pattern for the remainder of her junior year and her entire senior season.
Shelley spent 17 days in a hospital in Lincoln but by the first of March, a heart transplant was mentioned. She ended up getting switched to the Omaha hospital, which specializes in heart transplants.
“They told us she was No. 1 on their transplant list,” Ken said.
Her conditions got worse, which led to Shelley getting hooked up to an ECMO machine, which took her blood, injected oxygen, and then returned it to her body.
Then, in the spring of 2019, things took a turn for the worse.
Ken and Kendey were in Omaha, as Shelley lay in the intensive care unit on the cardiac floor.
Ken noticed a change in the pigment of his wife’s skin and the struggle she had trying to speak.
Then, he got a frightening request from the doctor.
“He said, ‘I don’t know where this is going, but you need to get your other kids here,’” Ken Eaton recalled.
He called Joeigh, who was still at home in Mound City. Then, he phoned the couple’s oldest child, Prent.
The now 27-year-old, who lives in Kansas City, wasn’t home at that time. He was in Texas for a friend’s wedding.
Prent was sitting in the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, waiting to come home.
That is when he saw his dad’s name pop up on his cell phone.
“He says, ‘hey mom isn’t doing good,’” Prent said. “I’m thousands of miles from home in an airport and I started to break down. I couldn’t get a flight back. It was absolutely insane. It did cross my mind, what was life going to be like without my mom. It was easily the worst and scariest moment I’ve had.”
While Prent did his best to get an earlier flight back home, nurses and doctors rushed to try to save his mom’s life.
Shelley underwent an emergency surgery to implant a half-inch LVAD pump – left ventricular assist device – used for those in heart failure. A part of her heart was replaced and the device was inserted to help her heart function and keep beating.
“I was so very frightened and scared it wasn’t going to be alright,” Kendey recalls of that moment. “That was the worst moment in my life. Just not knowing. My dad definitely kept a lot of his emotions from us and we never really saw him break down. He does a good job of maintaining that image so we can lean on him during those times especially. I was a mess that day, freaking out.”
Ken admits there were a handful of times he wondered if his wife was nearing her final days on Earth. He knew his wife was at peace with whatever the Lord chose to do in the situation.
The sight of his wife hooked up to machines and her life in peril was one that was familiar in an unsettling way.
“I watched my mother lie there 25 years ago,” Ken said. “I watched my mom battle leukemia and she died. There were a lot of similarities there. I could watch my kids and reflect back to what I saw in my mother and I knew how painful that was, to a degree.”
One hurdle after another
All told, Shelley spent 59 days in Nebraska hospitals, between Nebraska and Madona Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln. Almost every one of those nights, Ken was there by her side.
“I was crazy impressed how well he did during everything and how great of a husband he was during that time,” Joeigh said of her dad. “Never wanting to leave – we would go on food runs and he’d stay there with my mom, stuck in a chair beside her in the hospital. He was really supportive of her and that definitely kept us on the right track.”
One of the negative aspects of the life-saving surgery was an issue with the nerves in her shoulder. Her right arm was paralyzed from the shoulder down to her fingers. She couldn’t do anything with it, so she was transferred to Madona.
Joeigh noticed how emotionally draining the stay at Madonna was for her mother. That was the only time she saw doubt creep into her mother’s usually positive outlook.
“I think she was just afraid, what will happen and if she will get her hand back?” Joeigh said.
In June of 2019, she returned home and started doing rehab at Community Hospital-Fairfax. When she first arrived, she couldn’t even hold the equipment that measured her strength and grip. By December 2019, she had improved so much that she was able to get back to crafting and wrapping presents.
Changes in life
With the LVAD came a lot of changes to her daily routine and more planning for any kind of trip outside the house. She would often have to pack extra batteries for the LVAD pump, and at home, the machine was often plugged in and she would have about 25 feet of space to walk before having to stop.
Another part of the emergency surgery was having to avoid being in a tub or swimming pool. She would have to put a waterproof bag around the LVAD pump to take a shower.
Then, there were the constant changes in medicine. The monitor led to almost weekly lab work to check the levels of blood components.
Perhaps the worst was getting the news from her husband that she couldn’t work in the school anymore.
“I waited a few days to tell her because I knew it would break her heart that was already failing,” Ken said. “I knew she wasn’t ready to give up the kids.”
She had enough sick days to carry from March to the end of the year and she was able to qualify for 100 percent retirement from the state.
“I really didn’t get closure with the kids,” Shelley said. “I went up there one day when I got back and we had the kids do a walkthrough and I stood behind a window in the office because we were worried about germs. I couldn’t give them all big hugs like I wanted to. It was hard. I didn’t get to pack my office. My friend did it when I was in and out of the hospital.”
This past November, Ken made the decision he would also step away from education. He had originally planned to retire after the 2020-2021 school year, but with his wife on the heart donor list he knew he should be with her.
He has 30 years in education, the past 20 as a superintendent. He spent 26 of those years in Mound City, where he also coached cross country and junior high football. Eaton’s final day was June 30.
On the court
The heart condition also led to some travel changes for Ken and Shelley. The couple never missed any of their daughter’s high school basketball games and when Kendey went to Trenton for college, they only missed two games and that was because it was Joeigh’s senior year and there were conflicts.
There was one game when Ken planned to make the drive from Lincoln to Kearney to watch Northwest play at Nebraska-Kearney. That turned out to be a tough day for Shelley and he stayed with her. Kendey went out and scored 15 points, hitting all nine free-throw attempts and a pair of three-pointers as the Bearcats upset the Lopers.
“It was hard, I hate to miss any of her games,” Shelley said. “I was always afraid she would get hurt if I wasn’t there.”
There was even a time in high school that Shelley was there and Kendey still got hurt – tearing her ACL and missing her junior season.
The couple purchased the MIAA streaming package and watched most of Kendey’s games through a computer. They went to a handful of games after coming back from Omaha, but Shelley had to wear a mask and sit away from people – think social distancing only months before it was the norm in the United States.
Kendey did her best to keep her mind on basketball when she was on the court. She was second on Northwest in scoring this past season with 12.3 points per game. As a junior, she was the Bearcats’ leading scorer. In 26 games played – she missed 4.5 with a knee injury – she led the team in field goal attempts and field goals, made 62 of 70 free-throw attempts. In 14 of 26 games, she made every free throw shot she had.
“We knew what was going on, but she always kept that stuff to herself,” Northwest coach Austin Meyer said. “She is a kid that just showed up and did work. She was a great kid. A great person. We knew there were struggles for her and her family, but you wouldn’t know by watching her in practice and how she worked and the way she treated others. She is just a special person.
“She was dealing with a knee injury as well and missed five games and played at 50 or 60 percent at the end of the year. She was dealing with a lot of different things. You know she was thinking about (her mom) all the time, but she just came in and got her work done and helped out the team.”
Kendey was a three-sport star at Mound City, excelling in cross country and track and field. She was an all-state basketball player and helped the Panthers win three state track and field titles. She was a state qualifier in cross country all four years and earned all-state status nine times in track and field, three in her final years by placing in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs and on the 4×800-meter relay. She won a state championship in the two-mile race as a freshman.
But basketball was her passion despite the success in the running sports.
She chose basketball and landed in Trenton and kept winning. After guiding Mound City to its first state title in basketball, she helped NCMC win a regional championship. A two-time academic All-American, Eaton finished second all-time in career points for the Pirates.
“She told me in elementary school someday she would play basketball in college,” Shelley said. “I thought to myself, I didn’t say it to her, but ‘oh honey, you’re a tiny little thing. That will probably never happen.’ She made it happen.”
This spring – almost a year after the emergency LVAD surgery – a phone call provided joyous news to the Eatons.
There was a heart for Shelley, a surprise to her. She thought she would have to wait longer than she did to get the transplant.
“I couldn’t hardly believe it was true, even if they said it was true, I asked ‘are you kidding?’ Shelley said. “Of course they weren’t kidding me. They are calling me. It just didn’t seem like it would happen this soon.”
Joeigh was asleep when her mom barged in and told her the news. Joeigh, in turn, called her sister, who was in the middle of a class on Zoom. After that news, Kendey wasn’t very attentive to the rest of the class, just overjoyed at the news.
“I know we were all somewhat hesitant to pray for the heart,” Joeigh said. “We all obviously know that if she was going to get a heart, it would cause another family a tremendous amount of pain, the pain we almost went through several times in her journey. We were just praying she would stay healthy and stay here with us. When she did get the heart, obviously, we were really happy. But we were also sad. The first thing we did was pray for the donor family that they had comfort. It was hard to imagine someone else going through that.”
Shelley went out to the garage to tell Ken the news. He was welding and flipped up his helmet to see what the noise was, but saw nothing. Then he saw his wife walking toward him. He still remembers what he calls a beautiful smile on her face when she walked out.
“She said, we got the call,” Ken said. “I said, ‘what call? What are you talking about?’ She said her heart. We are always getting calls from specialists. She said ‘We got the call for a donor.’”
The two hurried up to pack and get ready to leave Mound City and made the trip up Interstate 29 to Omaha to prepare for the surgery.
On Wednesday, April 22, they got to Omaha, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shelley underwent testing for the coronavirus, hepatitis and HIV. Once she passed those, they met with the doctor.
Dr. John Y. Um became famous in 2017 when he performed three heart transplants in 34 hours, getting noticed by national news outlets.
The renowned doctor walked them through the procedure, telling them both it was very simple. The Eatons were still a bit worried.
“You make it sound like you are changing the water pump on a John Deere tractor,” Ken recalls telling Dr. Um. “He said it was very similar. I felt like I needed to go stand in the corner.”
The surgery was on Thursday, April 23, and the Eatons drove to the hospital, while the three children were back home in Missouri. Ken pulled up to the door, let Shelley out and drove off as there were no visitors allowed due to COVID regulations.
“It felt like I was dropping her off for summer camp,” Ken said with a laugh.
How does surgery work in the COVID era? Ken went to a parking spot and sat in his truck and waited for a phone call to hear how the surgery went.
“Him being in the parking lot was terrible and it was probably worse after I had the surgery,” Shelley said.
Three days later he got to see her for two hours. Two weeks later, Shelley’s third extended stay in a Nebraska hospital ended.
How it happened
The family still isn’t sure what happened to the person who donated the heart to Shelley. They were given information from the hospital and each member of the family wrote a letter to send thanks. They returned it to the hospital, which will then send it to the donor family.
Then, it is up to the donor family to see if they want to reach out to the Eatons.
The only information given was that it was a ‘young’ heart or where the heart came from.
“I think about the donor family and what happened to this person or child or whomever it was, it happened and it was going to happen,” Shelley said. “I needed to have a heart. Maybe that grief will be a little bit easier to know that part of a loved one is living somewhere else.”
In the four weeks following the surgery, the Eatons traveled to Omaha for a biopsy to see if the heart transplant was doing well and wasn’t showing any signs of rejection. They were told prior to the surgery that transplants are 95 percent successful.
There are medication changes based on what the numbers are looking like. She still gets short of breath often, but it is natural as her heart is getting used to the new body. The heart is beating a little bit harder on the right side but they were told that is normal for how long her body struggled with the heart failure before the transplant.
“Honestly, her attitude for the whole thing was amazing,” Ken said. “She never felt sorry for herself and she never got depressed. She said she knew God would take care of her one way or another. I knew what she meant. Her heart was right with Christ. She knew where she would spend eternity. Some don’t believe it or understand and that is fine. She always had a peace about it. Shelley’s big mantra was someone was always worse off. She was always worried about other people.”
The new heart also means she has to not be around people for the first three months – other than family and doctors – following the transplants. Some of that is tied to the COVID pandemic.
Once she can get back in the public, she already has trips to Maryville on her agenda.
Joeigh and Kendey live together in Maryville, with two of Kendey’s college teammates and another girl. Kendey, though her playing days are over, is sticking around town as she will be coaching in the Maryville R-II school district.
“If I’m able to go watch her, we will go watch her,” Shelley said of watching her daughter coach junior high basketball.
Kendey will be a student teacher at Northwest Technical School, but will be a provisional teacher this school year. She will be a middle school assistant girls basketball coach, but just starting out she is happy with the opportunity.
“I was thinking of this the other day, but Joeigh and I, we used to play school when we were little,” Kendey said. “I’d always be the teacher and have spelling bees. I have always wanted to teach since I can remember. I couldn’t see myself doing something other than teaching.”
Joeigh is a psychology major at Northwest and has worked for Easter Seals Midwest the past six months. The job is similar to the type of social work she wants to do after college, but plans on getting her master’s in social work too.
While they live in Maryville, both girls have been spending a lot of time home after their mother’s heart transplant.
“The last few weeks have been really good,” Ken said. “She has been really tired and not able to do a ton of stuff but having her back home and not being alone in a hospital by herself has been very nice. All of them have made a point to get back home more and take advantage of the miracle that she is still here with us.”