On November 1, 2019, then-16-year-old Za’Kelby Langham went to school just like any other day, but he returned home looking unwell. “I met him at the school bus, and the first thing I noticed when he got off was that his lips were black,” said Za’Kelby’s mother, Lillie Hubbard.
Having had CPR training through her work at a daycare, Lillie knew something was wrong and promptly drove her son to the local emergency room in Lawrence County, Alabama. Electrocardiogram and echocardiogram tests indicated something was wrong with Za’Kelby’s heart. “At the time, the doctors thought he may have had a heart attack,” Lillie said. Doctors made the call to send Za’Kelby to Children’s of Alabama for more tests. “They told us that Children’s was best equipped to help Za’Kelby with whatever was wrong, so off we went to Birmingham,” Lillie said.
At Children’s, Za’Kelby was officially diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body and can lead to heart failure. Doctors prescribed Za’Kelby medications to help balance the pressure on his heart, but within a few days, tests showed that both sides of his heart were enlarged and his heart function had not improved. Doctors made the decision to surgically insert a valve into Za’Kelby’s heart and a temporary valve in his right ventricle. “The hope was that the valves would help the heart pump correctly and start working on their own, and they could eventually go in and remove that temporary valve,” Lillie said. “Unfortunately, his heart just never would respond enough for them to do that.”
By January 2020, doctors knew Za’Kelby needed a heart transplant. He was placed on the transplant list on January 31. “It was scary and a lot to take in, but we were praying,” Lillie said. “We knew God wouldn’t bring Za’Kelby to something He couldn’t bring him through. So we stayed positive knowing God gives the hardest battles to His strongest soldiers. We knew we just had to be patient, positive and wait.”
Lillie is thankful for the assistance and support she and Za’Kelby received at Children’s. She stayed at the Ronald McDonald House to be close to Za’Kelby, who kept up with his school work and participated in fun activities thanks to hospital teachers and child life specialists. “They kept us going,” Lillie said. “There was always something to keep a smile on his face whether it was arts and crafts to do or visits from sports players.”
On June 22, 2020, Lillie got the call she had been waiting for – a new heart had been found for her son. Za’Kelby underwent surgery the next day and his recovery went better than expected. He was walking within two days and has been doing well since. Za’Kelby was discharged in July, but he and Lillie remained in Birmingham at the Ronald McDonald House due to his weekly post-transplant appointments at Children’s. After an eight-month stay in Birmingham, Za’Kelby, now age 18, returned home in August 2020. “We are so appreciative to Children’s for the major role they played in getting Za’Kelby well and getting us back home,” Lillie said. “We are so glad to be home, though it was bittersweet to leave Children’s because they really became just like family. Everyone there was so caring and helpful to us during our journey and they became so important to us. We couldn’t be more grateful.”