ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For thousands of visitors, the second morning of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with its mass ascension was magical. For two families who reconnected Sunday, it was an emotional journey undertaken to celebrate a miracle.
The story of their reunion, amidst the launch of 500 balloons on a clear blue morning, began years ago.
On December 12, 2007, LaMonica Whittaker-Walker and husband Kevin Walker’s first son, Johnston Walker, was born near Houston.
On his third day of life, he stopped breathing, and his parents rushed him to the hospital. Two days later, they were told he was not likely to live. He died at 5 days old from sudden infant death syndrome, also known as SIDS.
“My husband and I had a discussion. If we can’t save our son, we can save someone else’s,” said Whittaker-Walker, 41, a project manager who relocated to Albuquerque several years ago because of her husband’s job, and now works at Central New Mexico Community College. They decided to have his organs harvested for donation.
The day Johnston was born, a couple from the Dallas suburb of Plano, Maddie and Gray Harrison, also welcomed their first son, Keegan. While Maddie was pregnant with him, she learned he had a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot, that also caused other serious health problems.
He was not expected to survive without a heart transplant. His parents had put him on a list, but didn’t have high hopes because the chances of finding the heart of an infant as small as he was, 5½ pounds, was slim.
Then they got the call that changed everything: Johnston’s heart, on ice in a cooler, was on the way from Houston.
“Bittersweet” was how Maddie remembers feeling when she got the news – her son was getting a second chance at life only because LaMonica and Kevin’s infant wasn’t.
Johnston’s heart was successfully transplanted into Keegan’s body when he was a week old, making him the youngest and smallest heart transplant recipient in the state of Texas to date.
About 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Whittaker-Walker, now six months pregnant with a daughter, along with her husband and their two sons, now 4 and almost 2, as well as her mother and a handful of other relatives, drove from their Taylor Ranch home to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
They were waiting for the Harrisons – whose brood now included not only Keegan but also their daughter and protector and sometimes voice-box to Keegan, Audrey, 3.
The two families had agreed to meet for a reunion and ride a balloon together at the Balloon Fiesta and celebrate the miracle that created a bond among them.
The families always knew of each other, because at the time of the donation they had agreed to let their contact information be shared. Over the years, they’d exchanged emails and telephone calls, and had one face-to-face meeting for a few hours in 2010.
Whittaker-Walker organized the reunion because she wanted to give the Harrisons a taste of Albuquerque. In fact, she invited the family to share a weekend’s worth of time together.
The Harrisons showed up on Friday. On Saturday, they cheered on Whittaker-Walker at her graduation from an MBA program at the University of New Mexico. On Sunday afternoon following the fiesta, they were invited to the second birthday party of their younger son, Kolton, who will turn 2 on Oct. 24.
“I got real emotional when I saw Keegan” at the graduation, said Kevin Walker, 41, who manages a truck dealership. He cried a little, and, like the first time they had met, he and his wife touched Keegan’s chest and felt the beating heart that had come from the son they had lost.
For the Harrisons, the reunion was an emotional journey. They’d flown in Friday from Texas with Keegan and Audrey, and arrived from their Uptown hotel at the fiesta about an hour after the other family, just as day began to break.
“This is the actually the first trip that didn’t start or end in a hospital stay,” said Maddie Harrison, a former Dallas County prosecutor who now does legal consulting work from home and provides full-time care for Keegan, whose medical costs are partially covered by several insurance programs. Because he needs therapies that aren’t covered, they live paycheck-to-paycheck without savings. Keegan is now in third-stage kidney failure and receives food through a tube in his abdomen, because his intestines don’t absorb food. He has had several strokes and is too medically fragile to attend school, so a teacher comes to his home.
Arriving at the fiesta a little later than anticipated due to traffic, “it was a little bit of a relief that we’d gotten there. … It felt like seeing an old friend or an old family member,” Maddie Harrison said of reconnecting with LaMonica, who spent time before the balloon ride doting on not only her children, but Maddie’s as well.
Keegan, wearing a mask over his nose and mouth, bounded into the media tent of the Balloon Fiesta and hugged the legs of a few people he’d just met, while his parents chatted before the mass ascension.
The plan: Keegan and his parents were to go up in a hot-air balloon at no cost. That’s because the fiesta’s media coordinator Tom Garrity and Whittaker-Walker both sit on the board of Ronald McDonald House, and when she came up with the idea to invite the Harrisons for a balloon ride, she approached Garrity, who supplied both families media passes that allowed them into the fiesta for free.
Garrity also paired them with balloonist Jim Lynch, a retired airline pilot who had been coming to the fiesta from Florida for decades and providing free rides to members of the media for the past eight years. He said he has had hundreds of enjoyable balloon rides, “but nothing as special as this.”
Keegan’s father, Gray Harrison, 34, gave his son a few injections of medicine in the abdomen before leaving the tent, then climbed into the balloon basket with Keegan in his arms. A real estate developer who was Maddie’s high school sweetheart, he told his son, “I love you,” as they got set to take off.
Keegan had been excited since the family’s arrival in Albuquerque, but when the 6-year-old saw the flames that heated the air in the balloons and heard the rush of propane, he said nervously, “I need to go out.”
So his father handed him off to Maddie, who stayed behind with LaMonica, who couldn’t take a ride due to her pregnancy.
LaMonica’s mother, Clytemnestra “Cly” Whittaker, 64, a spunky retired school nurse clad in a baseball cap and sneakers, climbed in, taking Keegan’s place with Gray. Both families clapped, cheered and snapped photos on their iPhones as the balloon lifted off into the sky, which was by then bright blue and filled with light.
Their ride in the rainbow-colored balloon called the Whirlaway was no more than 10 minutes. “Surreal,” is how Gray described it. Maddie and Keegan waved from below while Audrey sat under a blanket in her stroller watching.
While the Whirlaway bobbed in the sky, LaMonica rode in the chase vehicle so she could meet her mother and Gray when they landed.
Everyone was nearly silent when the balloon made a smooth landing at a distant part of the park. “It was a very precious moment,” Cly said.
Added Gray: “I was amazed how quiet it was; it was really peaceful up there.”
After the ride, the truck returned everyone to the launch site, where Lynch popped two bottles of champagne, the labels of which he had everyone sign. He gave one to each family, then pinned each of the participants with a pin representing his balloon, and recited the Balloonist’s Prayer. There were lots of hugs.
No one was disappointed Keegan didn’t take flight.
“Just the fact that he’s out here doing this with us is great,” said Maddie, who said she has been told that Keegan will probably not live for 10 more years and therefore doesn’t qualify for other transplants.
“To have the ability as a family to do something fun is something we’ll never, ever forget. This will stand out in my mind as one of the best things I ever got to do,” she said. “And to experience it with the Walkers … I couldn’t ask for more.”