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Kelly Glenn, nearing her 16th birthday, has endured heart-related medical concerns since birth,
but has not allowed her condition to steal her joy.
Photo by Sherrie Norris

Originally published: 2013-09-09 11:40:20
Last modified: 2013-09-10 15:29:38

Born with inner strength

by Sherrie Norris

While her peers were anticipating their first day of a new school year in August, 15-year-old Kelly Glenn of Vilas was recovering from her second open-heart surgery.

She might have missed opening week of her sophomore year, but thanks to homebound instruction provided by Watauga County Schools, Glenn said on Tuesday, "I'm caught up and back on track."

Returning to school after Labor Day was exciting for Glenn, who just a week from her 16th birthday, thinks less of the scar on her chest than she does about her upcoming "paradise birthday party" and, of course, the ultimate rite-of-passage: her license to drive.

"I wanted to go to the beach for my birthday, but they're bringing the beach to me," she said. "It's going to be fun."

Fun is not something she's had a lot of lately -- and even since being born with heart issues, Glenn has had to limit her physical activity.

"I took gymnastics when I was younger, but I couldn't do anything strenuous," she said. "And, I have always wanted to be a cheerleader, but I couldn't do that, either."

However, Glenn has amazing stamina and inner strength, a great attitude and has been fighting for life since birth, said her mother, Margaret Glenn: "She has always made the best of everything and has been a delight to everyone around her."

Kelly arrived six weeks earlier than expected, via emergency Caesarean section on Sept. 14, 1997, weighing 4 pounds and 6 ounces. 

Two months later, her pediatricians thought the heart murmur they detected at birth "was getting louder," said Margaret.  

Pediatric cardiologists at Brenner's Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem ordered an ultrasound of her heart, which revealed the diagnosis of Tetralogy of Fallot.

"It meant that she actually had four defects," said Margaret -- a large hole in the heart, an abnormal blood flow related to muscles around the arteries, an enlarged right ventricle and no pulmonary valve."

A catheterization further revealed the severity of her condition. 

"The hole in her heart was very large; she needed surgery to keep her blood from leaking into her lungs," said Margaret.

At 3 months of age, Kelly underwent her first heart surgery on Dec. 22, 1997. Three weeks later, a 10-hour open-heart procedure was performed to repair the defects, with the exception of the pulmonary valve. 

She was on a ventilator for five days and in intensive care for seven. 

Kelly did well for about a year. At around 18 months old, she began experiencing multiple ear and throat infections.

By her 11th birthday, Kelly had endured 11 sets of ear tubes, her left eardrum burst twice and her tonsils and adenoids were removed. 

For two years, Kelly required hearing aids, but the damage to her eardrums eventually healed. 

"We were told that Kelly would require a pulmonary valve between the ages of 14 and 20," Margaret said. In the meantime, she received a "patch" during her first open-heart surgery to help the blood flow in her pulmonary valve. 

Fast-forward through multiple complications and hospitalizations. 

Following some concerns that began in late 2012, an MRI revealed that Kelly's heart was "getting enlarged," which, as predicted, would require valve replacement, Margaret said.

On July 31, 2013, Kelly underwent her second open-heart surgery, a seven-hour procedure requiring intensive care and a four-day hospitalization.

One week after her surgery, Kelly began running a fever. 

Through a chest x-ray, her cardiologist discovered that fluid was accumulating around her right lung. Kelly's symptoms continued to worsen. On Aug. 9, she was readmitted to Brenner's where she received a chest tube to drain almost two liters of fluid from her right lung. Five days later, with chest tube in place, she returned home.

In about three weeks, Kelly was back in school, planning her birthday party and looking forward to driving. 

"Despite what she' s been through, she is one of the sweetest and strongest teenagers you will ever meet." said her aunt, Michelle Underwood.

In addition to her cardiac concerns, Kelly has also suffered from "severe migraine headaches since she was 7," Margaret said.  

"I can remember many times when she had special events planned, like school field trips or her first school dance, her days started with a bad migraine and I wanted her to stay at home, but she always reassured me that she would be OK. She wanted to be like everyone else, so she would go and have as much fun as she could. I had to pick her up early, at times, but, no matter what, she always tried."

Kelly, along with her parents, Eric and Margaret Glenn, said they are humbled and thankful for the prayers and all the support they have received from the Watauga County community, especially since Kelly's recent surgery. 

"God and his people have been so good to us," Margaret said. "This was one of the hardest things we have been through and it's only through the grace of God and the help of so many people, even people we don't know, that we have made it." 

Eric's co-workers at Harris Teeter have been helpful "and my coworkers at Watauga Medical Center donated their vacation time for me to be off for a month," Margaret said. 

Margaret said she's convinced that God has great plans for her daughter. 

"Most of the time, children look up to their parents for strength," she said, "but, many times, I look to Kelly for my strength."

"I could not have gone through all she has and handled it the way she does," Margaret said. "Even our pastor comments on how she's always smiling, no matter what."

When Kelly was a toddler, Margaret said, she and her husband, Eric, found themselves asking "Why?"

"But we know that she has touched many people through this ordeal," Margaret said. "She has strengthened us all."

Kelly can't climb stairs, participate in PE classes and she can't carry more than 10 pounds, she said.
 But Kelly said she is looking forward to the homecoming dance in a couple of weeks, and she loves to be outside, to swim, watch movies and go to church. And, don't forget her cowgirl boots and country music. 

"It's pretty hard to be limited, but I don't feel like I've missed out on a lot," Kelly said. "I am fine with it. We can't change the fact that it happened." 

Her faith and the love of her family and friends have kept Kelly strong, she said, especially that of her parents and her older brother, Cody.

Her future plans? "I want to be a culinary chef," she said, "or maybe a lawyer, but that will take longer."

To follow Kelly's story on Facebook, look for Kelly's Heart Strings.

Fundraiser Planned for Kelly

In an effort to help with Kelly's mounting medical bills, friends of the Glenn family are hosting a spaghetti supper, silent auction and a great night of entertainment with Carolina Crossing and Mercy's River from 5-8 p.m. on September 21 at the family life center of Greenway Baptist Church in Boone.Those unable to attend but wishing to help the Glenn family, may do so by making tax-deductible donations at Yadkin Bank in Boone, where the Kelly A. Glenn medical fund has been established.