Soldier Returns Just in Time for Unborn Son's Heart Surgery

PHOTO: Megan and Jon Keeney are enjoying their first week home with Jaxon, who has been hospitalized after open heart surgery.Courtesy Jonathan Keeney
Megan and Jon Keeney are enjoying their first week home with Jaxon, who has been hospitalized after open heart surgery.

Four months before he was born, Jaxon Lucas Keeney was diagnosed with a heart defect -- his aortic artery and pulmonary artery were backwards, so that his blood circulated in the wrong direction.

His parents, Jon and Megan Keeney, both 26, knew the baby would be whisked straight from birth into the operating room for lifesaving surgery and were confident in Jaxon's doctor.

The hard part was getting the baby's father home to West Virginia in time for the delivery. Jon Keeney was on active duty in the U.S. Army's 305th Military Police Unit nearly 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.

In 2007, Keeney joined the Reserves at age 20. He did one tour of Iraq in 2010, then volunteered for Afghanistan. The couple found out she was pregnant two days before he went overseas.

Keeney had one delay after another, then got stuck in Germany for four days when his charter flight home was cancelled.

"It was quite a mess," he told

But his father, a Baptist pastor, tapped some of his connections, and U.S. senators. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va , stepped in to help.

Keeney arrived June 5, just two days before the baby's birth.

Just last week, Jaxon returned from West Virginia University Children's Hospital in Morgantown and the Keeneys are living together as a family for the first time.

Jaxon's condition -- transposition of the great arteries -- is the second most common cyanotic heart defect, causing blue-tinged skin and breathing problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In a normal heart, the blood that returns from the body goes through the right side of the heart and the pulmonary artery to the lungs to get oxygen. It then returns through the left side and travels out the aorta to the body.

"In transposition, the pulmonary artery comes out of the left [of the heart] and the aorta comes out of the right," according to Dr. Larry Rhodes, chief of pediatric cardiology at WVU Children's, where Jaxon was treated.

"The blood doesn't go where it is supposed to," said Rhodes. "The blood goes to the body and is not taking oxygen."

In the United States, the congenital heart defect occurs in about 1,900 babies a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors can diagnose the condition with a fetal ultrasound at 22 weeks' gestation. They think the cause may be genetic.

Typically, the fetus grows well in the womb when its body is oxygenated from the mother's blood stream through the placenta.

"Most are born at term and are pretty good in size," said Rhodes. "But as soon as they convert to adult or living circulation, they start showing blueness."

Baby Gets 'Arterial Switch' At Birth

In Jaxon's case, Dr. Robert A. Gustafson, division chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, performed the "arterial switch" procedure.

Initially, he tore a hole in the upper chamber of the heart to allow the blood to "mix better," said Rhodes. Then, five days later, he cut the aorta and pulmonary arteries and "moved them back where they belong."

Jaxon's prognosis is good, according to Rhodes, who said doctors have been doing this type of surgery since the 1980s.

"There are people out there in their 30s doing fine," he said. "I have 10 or 15 patients and some are active in varsity sports. They can live a normal active life."

The Keeneys first suspected there was a problem with the pregnancy when she went to her obstetrician in February and had a routine ultrasound.

"There was something about the way Jaxon was sitting and they couldn't get a good look at his heart," said his father. "But there was something they didn't like and sent her to a specialist."

Megan Keeney was urged to go three hours away to West Virginia University Children's Hospital in Morgantown.

"I was working six-day weeks and at least 12 hours a day," said Jon Keeney. "[Megan] had a lot to take on herself, especially when I was over there and she didn't know what was going on."

He arrived home June 5, two weeks before the due date as Megan Keeney was induced into labor. Immediately after birth, Jaxon was rushed into another room with the pulmonary experts.

"They kind of brought him back to Megan to hold for a couple of seconds," he said.

During Jaxon's recuperation from surgery, the couple stayed in the basement of Keeney's uncle in Morgantown.

Even though Jaxon's open heart surgery was no surprise, the first week home still rattled his parents.

"[Megan] stays up all night, just watching him," said Jon Keeney, who was home looking after Jaxon to give his wife a break by the pool.

"He just loves his car seat," he said. "He's very good and he doesn't cry very much."

Megan Keeney has been unable to keep her eyes off the infant.

"That whole first night we came home, I sat up and just stared at him because I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing," she told the Charleston Daily Mail, which first reported the story.

"I love it," she said. "We don't have to worry about wires and stuff when we're picking him up."

She intends to stay at home with the baby, working part-time at a tanning salon. After six years of active and two years inactive duty, Jon Keeney can now stay stateside. He hopes to go back to his job as a police officer in South Charleston.

"I was nervous, but I had faith that God would take care of him," he said of Jaxon. "We were still nervous as parents should be, but we also knew he would be O.K. and get through in the end."