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Super Keith: Spirited 7-year-old gets a transplant, then sings and dances in the ICU – Lancast

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2014 7:30 am


This summer, 7-year-old Keith Wagner met a new friend named Bob. The two have been completely inseparable since the day Bob saved Keith’s life.

Keith, a first-grader who lives in southern Lancaster County with his large, unique extended family, greeted his June 8 kidney transplant with the same infectious spirit he’s shown for other challenges in his short life.

“They weren’t used to patients in the ICU dancing and singing in the room,” his mother, Tonya, says.

That’s exactly how Keith spent his first few days with Bob, the name he gave his new kidney. The two were formally introduced at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.

The Wagner family — and of course, Bob — will walk in the National Kidney Foundation’s Kidney Walk on Oct. 12 in Wilmington.

Keith, or “Bubba” to his family, can answer nearly any question about his health. He’s also the kind of kid who never met a stranger, which makes him an ideal ambassador for kidney-disease awareness.

Despite a rough start in life, Keith has an upbeat attitude, equal affection for dancing and football, and a reservoir of exuberance that seems bottomless, even after a major operation.

Keith’s transplant surgeon, Dr. Bruce Kaiser, calls him “Mr. Personality,” and his mother a “terrific advocate” for her son.

“Every time (Keith) comes to see us … he has a joke for all of us, which he likes to say to an audience,” says Kaiser, who has seen Keith through numerous complications.

“He’s precious, he’s adorable, but he’s a kid, and he has his moments. He can be tough. (Wagner) handles him well.”

A unique family Wagner and two of her sisters, Debbie and Marsha, are raising seven children among them, including some with special needs. The children all joined the Wagner family through adoption, and the sisters also have fostered at least nine children. (Two of the family’s children have died because of their medical issues.)

The sisters and their parents, Keith (little Keith’s namesake) and Wanda, live on a sprawling rural property and help each other with child care. “I couldn’t do it without them,” Wagner says. “That’s why we live so close.”

Wagner already was the mother of two toddlers when her adoption agency, Bethanna, called about Keith, an 18-month-old born with serious kidney and bladder problems. At first Wagner worried that caring for Keith would take too much time away from her daughters. Then she went to meet him at a Philadelphia hospital.

“All he did was sit up,” she says. “He didn’t walk. He didn’t talk. … There was no one there to give him what he deserved.”

Keith’s smile won over Wagner right away. She brought him home on Christmas Eve. “You don’t see the medical issues when you see him,” she says. “You see a child.”

Once Keith came home, he began to catch up on his milestones. Doctors treated his bladder and other health issues to prepare for a transplant.

Keith went to Wilmington for dialysis three times a week. He missed a lot of school, and some tutoring sessions included “moments where he didn’t think he needed to learn,” Wagner says tactfully.

14-year-old donor In June, Keith received a kidney from a deceased 14-year-old donor. As he explains it, “They had to cut me open, take something out and put in something from another person.” Keith healed more quickly than expected and went home in under two weeks. Kaiser, the hospital’s medical director of transplants, says Keith is doing well now, despite a number of complications.

The transplant means Keith no longer needs dialysis. He’s ready to go back to school — sort of — but he needs to avoid crowds until his white blood cell count goes up. “Now he’s feeling so well that to tell him he can’t do something is hard,” Wagner says.

Keith takes at least 10 medications daily and needs catheterization every four hours. A shark backpack holds his supplemental feeding equipment. Wagner, who had to stop working for a while to care for Keith, just started a new job as a teacher’s aide.

Nurse practitioner Cathy McAdams, the hospital’s transplant coordinator, says, “(Wagner) never complains about what she has to do to take care of him, and it’s been a lot.” Four months after his transplant, Keith bounces around the living room and peddles a small bike on the deck. He loves the Eagles, Phillies, singing and dancing, though he was in the hospital during his last recital.

“I love to watch football,” he says. “I’m not allowed to (play) it myself.”

Keith’s sisters, Christine and Cianni, are now 8-year-old third-graders. The family also has an African grey parrot that can be quite talkative — “just like me sometimes,” Keith says. The Wagners hope to honor Keith’s donor and his family with their Kidney Walk team, Keith’s Krew. Wagner has exchanged letters with the donor’s mother, who signs hers, “Forever family.”

Wagner plans to make a shirt for her son that says, “Ask me about Bob.” Keith, who never leaves a medical appointment without a pair of exam gloves or other small gift, won’t pass up a chance to talk about his transplant.

“He wants to be a doctor,” McAdams says, “and he’s ready to practice tomorrow.”

• For more information on Keith’s Krew, visit

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