COVINGTON, Ga. - For Marissa and Kale Waddleton and their 18-month old Kaleb, every day really feels like a gift. That's because the first-time parents have been through a lot.
"One day you've got your healthy little baby, and the next he's struggling for his life,” Kale Waddleton told FOX 5.
Their ordeal began Labor Day weekend of 2015. The Covington, Georgia couple cut short a family beach trip, after Kaleb, who was then just 3-months-old, developed a bad cough he couldn’t shake.
"Honestly, my wife had that feeling that something wasn't right,” said Kaleb’s dad.
They returned home and brought Kaleb to a nearby urgent care. Within minutes, Kaleb was being airlifted on a helicopter like to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. That's where he was diagnosed with a dangerously-enlarged heart, or dilated cardiomyopathy.
It quickly became clear to Kale and Melissa that Kaleb would need a heart transplant, if doctors could find him a donor heart. They spent 96 days in the hospital, waiting.
"And we knew our time was getting closer and closer, and we needed that new heart for him,” mother Marissa Waddleton said.
Last year, the Waddletons spent Halloween and then Thanksgiving at Children's Healthcare.
"This time last year, we were just praying for another day, for him to be stable,” Marissa told FOX 5 the week before Thanksgiving.
Then, December 3, 2015, the transplant team found a donor heart,
"That was just a total shock,” said Marissa. “They always said, 'when you least expect it, it will come.'"
"They told us don't really tell anybody, but I called everybody on the phone,” said her husband.
Early the next morning, on December 4, Kaleb was rolled into the OR.
"It was hell,” said Kale Waddleton, remembering that goodbye. “Handing over your child, knowing they are going to take his heart out of his body. You can't describe it."
The almost 4-hour surgery went smoothly and just 6 days later, the Waddletons headed home with their son.
Nearly a year later, Kaleb returned for his one-year heart biopsy and catherization, so that doctors could evaluate the health of his donor heart. Tests showed it’s strong and Kaleb has “zero signs of rejection.”
The Waddletons said they can’t help but think about the family of his heart donor, who anonymously gave their baby this chance.
"That's in our mind every day,” said Kale Waddleton. “Daily. We pray for that family 10 times a day. Even people who've never prayed in my family pray for that family."
Marissa and Kale have written the donor family. One day they hope to meet them and let them listen to their child's heart beating inside Kaleb's chest.
"It's a miracle really,” said Marissa Waddleton. “For that family to donate something, just to give somebody life. I mean, Kaleb wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them."
This holiday season, the Waddletons are grateful for strangers, and second chances.
"All I could do is probably just hug them and say thank you. And thank you will never be enough,” Mrs. Waddleton said.
If you would like to follow Kaleb Waddleton’s story, his parents have started a Facebook page called Prayers for Kaleb.