By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Kelsey Keen wants to be treated just like everyone else. She wants to go where her friends go and do the things her friends do.

So since most of her friends do not have a benefit organized in their honor, or plan an annual celebration to commemorate a life-or-death survival story, or read about themselves in the Catholic Standard & Times, the Archbishop Ryan senior would prefer that you simply consider her a normal teenager from a loving home and a supportive community and be on your merry way.

However, try as she might, the 18-year-old from St. Martha Parish in Northeast Philadelphia is not exactly an everyday person. And when you really press her, she’ll admit it.

“In the beginning, having all this attention was a little weird,” said Keen. “But now, I’m kind of used to it.”

When she was in first grade at St. Martha School, Keen appeared to be as healthy as ever. But on Sept. 16, 1997, that all changed.

Keen was unable to relax that night, and despite her attempts to fall back asleep, she couldn’t. The next morning, her mom noticed that Keen did not look right. Part of her face was drooping, she couldn’t stand tall, and she was unable to walk normally.

Medical tests revealed that Keen had experienced a stroke. About 10 days later, Keen had three more and, on the third, suffered a heart attack. The calamity left her on life support.

The Keen family, which consists of Kelsey, Archbishop Ryan sophomore Krysta, St. Martha fifth-grader Karleigh, mom June (a 1984 Ryan grad) and father Kevin (a 1979 Father Judge alum), needed a miracle.

“The only thing that could save her was a heart transplant,” said June Keen. “We had to wait and hope.”

On the early evening of Oct. 6, with Kelsey in a drug-induced coma at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the Keens received word that a two-year-old boy from Toronto, Canada, had died and his heart was available for transplant. A little more than 10 hours later, the heart arrived and emergency surgery began.

Keen obviously survived the procedure. She fared extremely well until an infection this past June required open-heart surgery, and although the recovery was tedious, Keen was again back on her feet in time for her senior year at Ryan.

One of the things Keen was most concerned about was making the volleyball team.

“She was so worried about it, but everything worked out great,” said eighth-year volleyball coach Nora Cramer, also a Ryan graduate. “She’s quite a competitor.”

On Sept. 25 at Ryan, the volleyball team organized a fundraiser before its match against Villa Joseph Marie Academy. Donations were collected through a variety of methods, including the sale of green T-shirts with the words “Organ donation saved our teammate’s life” draped across the back.

According to Cramer, the event raised about $1,000, and the proceeds were sent to the Gift of Life Foundation. All of the attention lavished on the cause seemed to motivate the team and Keen in particular. The Ragdolls won in three straight sets and several people commented that Keen has never looked more athletic and competent on a volleyball court.

“She was able to be out there for quite a bit, and she did really well,” said senior Kate Kutschera, a Ryan co-captain along with teammate Lisa English. “I know Kelsey tries to avoid the spotlight, but she really can’t. Kelsey is everyone’s favorite person on the team. You can always count on Kelsey.”

Junior Ragdoll Rachel Kelly, a close friend of Keen’s since grade school, agreed.

“She’s always looking for the positive in every situation,” said Kelly. “She’s a pretty special girl, and she is pretty lucky to be alive given all she had to go through. We’re all the better for her. She’s such a great person.”

Now at the request of Kelsey Keen, please continue with your day and forget you ever read about her. Just remember how vital it is to be an organ donor.