By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Underneath that face mask, Jaiden Kissinger was all smiles as he posed for photos with members of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Police Department.
The 5-year-old Kearney boy got to check out the cruiser parked outside Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, and he received a police hat and enough toys and games to make any kid jealous.
For 30 minutes on that Wednesday morning, it was easy to forget all the tough times that led to this moment.
“After they left, Jaiden said it was the best day ever. To be honest, on Thursday and Friday, I wasn’t sure that we were going to get to bring Jaiden home, and all I kept thinking was, ‘Thank God he had the best day ever before this,’” his mother Malissa Kissinger said with tears in her eyes.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Jaiden was born with a congenital heart defect. He underwent surgery at just 3 months old to repair a hole in his heart, and a second procedure two months later replaced the mitral valve with an artificial Melody valve.
When he was 13 months old, he entered the foster care system, where Malissa was his home health nurse.
“Jaiden is the most energetic, happy little boy ever. He is just mischievous enough,” said Malissa, who fell in love with his spirit and crooked smile.
In November 2016, Jaiden was placed with the Kissinger family, who adopted him 17 months later.
After a third heart surgery to replace the Melody valve, Jaiden seemed to be on the road to recovery. The Kissingers, who have six other children, moved from Amherst to Kearney in summer 2019 and Jaiden is currently enrolled as a kindergartner at Amherst Public School.
However, his health took a turn for the worse in late November 2020, when Jaiden began experiencing fevers as high as 105.3 degrees. He was initially diagnosed with an ear infection and treated with oral antibiotics, but the symptoms continued.
After a couple follow-up visits and additional testing, the diagnosis changed to endocarditis, an infection caused by bacteria growth on the heart valves.
Jaiden was taken to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, where he spent eight days before coming home for Christmas. On Dec. 26, the fever returned and Jaiden went back to the hospital, where he continued to receive IV antibiotics. Although he was allowed to leave on Jan. 8, doctors decided his artificial heart valve would need to be replaced again.
That surgery occurred on Jan. 29, and Jaiden remained in the hospital for five more weeks.
UNK Police Sgt. Ricci Fast worked with Malissa and her husband Corey at Boys and Girls Home of Nebraska and his daughter is in Jaiden’s class.
When he learned about Jaiden’s most recent surgery – and his fascination with law enforcement – he wanted to find a way to support the family and brighten their day.
Fast brought the idea to his co-workers, who immediately jumped on board. In just a few days, UNK Police officers and other staff donated enough money to purchase the police-themed toys and games, as well as a gas card for Malissa to use when she traveled between Kearney and Omaha.
“It was amazing seeing everyone’s willingness to help and how quickly the donations came in,” Fast said.
Last month, Fast, UNK Police Chief Jim Davis and Officer Scott Seals made the five-hour round trip to deliver the items and spend some time with Jaiden at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.
“If we can put a smile on his face for 30 minutes, then all the effort was worth it,” Fast said. “It was all about him, but it did a lot for our souls, too.”
Malissa was blown away by the gesture.
“When Ricci brought it up, I couldn’t believe they were going to do that,” she said. “It was amazing. It’s something Jaiden will never forget, and I’ll never forget.”
After a brief setback, Jaiden is doing much better now and was able to leave the hospital last weekend.
Malissa is grateful to have her son back home, and for the support they received from UNK Police.
“I’ve cried more than once over it,” she said.