Shelly and Kevin Joiner's happy, sassy 7-year-old daughter, McKenna Katelynn Faith Joiner, came home from school, ate a snack and got ready for swim practice with the Coast Aquatics Swim Team, the same way she would any Friday afternoon.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Sept. 13 was a normal day — at least it seemed that way.
Shelly and Kevin Joiner’s happy, sassy 7-year-old daughter, McKenna Katelynn Faith Joiner, came home from school, ate a snack and got ready for swim practice with the Coast Aquatics Swim Team, the same way she would any Friday afternoon.
“She loved swim,” Shelly said. “She’s always loved the water. She wanted to be a mermaid.”
McKenna loved singing and dancing. She loved church and school.
“Everything she did, she did with passion,” Shelly said.
Kevin took his daughters, McKenna and Trinity, 13, to the Bernie R Lefebvre Aquatic Center in Fort Walton Beach. McKenna swam to the end of the pool, where her father sat, waved and went back to swimming what no one knew would be the final laps of her life.
Only a few minutes later, McKenna flipped over from a backstroke, clutched the lane line and drowned. They later discovered she'd had a stroke caused by an unknown heart blockage.
“I was scared to death — obviously, we didn’t know how bad it was at that particular moment,” Kevin said. “It was heartbreaking to see my little girl laying there. It was a feeling of helplessness at that point. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know what to do. “
A lifeguard immediately jumped into the water, pulled McKenna out and performed CPR.
Shelly was about to leave for a women’s conference at their church with their other daughter, Katie, when she got the call.
The paramedics took McKenna to the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. She couldn’t move the left side of her body. Her eyes rolled open and then shut.
“When McKenna quit breathing, Kevin said the whole way to the hospital he was praying to God, ‘If you just let me keep her, I promise I’ll spend the rest of my life taking care of her,’” Shelly said. “He took that to heart.”
She was flown to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, but her eyes never opened again.
McKenna died Sept. 16. The Joiner family donated her organs.
McKenna didn’t just steal Kevin’s birthday; she stole his heart, too.
She was born July 25, on Kevin’s 50th birthday. She was adopted as a baby and became one of Kevin and Shelly’s seven children combined — along with Gabriel, 9; Trinity, 13; Katie, 20; Jessica, 26; Megan, 30; and Lindsey, 34.
“Kevin stepped aside, and McKenna took charge,” Shelly said. “It’s always been whatever his princess wanted.”
Kevin didn’t mind giving up his special day because McKenna was always the best gift he could ask for.
“People would ask me, ‘What are you doing for your birthday, Kevin?’” Kevin said. “‘Going to McDonald’s Playplace.’ That’s what we did. It was McKenna’s birthday, not mine. All the time I got to spend with McKenna was special. She was so full of life and so happy, with such a big personality.”
Shelly remembers eating at Golden Corral one night when McKenna got mad and shoved her plate off the table. Kevin took her outside to scold her. Before he could, she started dancing to the music playing from the speakers.
Carolyn Draper, Shelley's sister, recalls their family eating calamari at a restaurant after a swim meet in Panama City. McKenna picked up a piece and made it dance to the song, “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
“How can you sing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider' and then eat it?” Draper said. “She made us all laugh.”
McKenna was the Joiner family's socialite. Their driveway is filled with sweet messages in spray chalk from the neighborhood kids; their Facebook pages covered in long-winded posts about McKenna; and their voicemails full with messages from Boys & Girls Club counselors, teachers, classmates and their parents.
“She touched so many lives,” Shelly said. “We’ve lived in our neighborhood for 21 years, and people walking down the road would stop and ask me, ‘How’s McKenna?’ I didn’t even know McKenna knew everyone in the neighborhood.”
McKenna was everybody’s best friend, but she was her brother Gabriel’s other half — he had no choice in the matter. They did everything together.
“He wasn’t allowed to have an independent thought because McKenna was gonna overrule it,” Draper said. “She was bossy to him like you wouldn’t believe.”
McKenna helped struggling classmates in school, led impromptu dance parties in the living room, traipsed barefoot through the neighborhood and always left a big impression on everyone she encountered. When she did wear shoes, they had to be the most sparkly, tackiest, gaudiest pair ever, Shelly said.
After McKenna suffered the stroke and was breathing with a ventilator, the nurse applied Chapstick to her dry lips.
“I told the nurse, ‘She’d be so much happier if that was bright red,’” Shelly said with a smile.
All Shelly Joiner cared about was the heart.
She was grateful McKenna’s retinas were donated and her kidney was given to a 30-year-old woman. Shelly knew, though, McKenna’s most valuable organ was her giant, kind and beautiful heart, which was evaluated as viable for donation.
Getting the call saying McKenna’s heart went to a 6-year-old girl is the first ounce of comfort she’s felt since McKenna died.
“It was the first time I’d seen a spark of hope in (Shelly’s) eyes in days — especially for it to go to another little girl of about the same age,” Draper said.
“It makes me so happy,” Shelly said. “It makes me know that another family is spared the pain we have felt.”
The process of donating McKenna’s organs was longer and harder than any of them expected, Draper said.
“That was a super hard decision,” Shelly said. “It sounds really easy to sign that paperwork that you’re going to be an organ donor. From the time they pronounce your child deceased, that’s when they can start the testing — that’s hard sitting there watching your child mechanically breathe … There were several times in the 36 hours that would’ve been so much easier to say, ‘Forget it. We can’t do this anymore.’”
The Joiners might someday meet the girl who received McKenna’s heart and her family.
It’s Monday morning for the Joiner family — the first day of the work and school week and the designated day when things were supposed to “go back to normal,” Shelly says, as if saying it might make it true.
Gabriel is at school. Kevin is at work. Her daughter Trinity has returned to swim practice. The sun came up.
But nothing today is normal.
“Everywhere I look there’s McKenna,” Shelly said.
She would normally fix McKenna’s hair in the morning; get her ready for school and drive McKenna and Gabriel to school together.
“We spent his whole life telling him that was his sister and he had to take care of her,” Shelly said. “This morning, taking him to school, he and I were both in tears. That’s not the way it’s ever been.”
Shelly and Kevin are thankful for the outpouring of kind messages from people in McKenna's life, but nothing really makes it OK. Nothing makes it normal. Those in the Joiner family take turns being strong for each other because someone has to.
“Sometimes I’m sad; Sometimes I’m angry,” Kevin said. “I don’t understand why this happened ... There’s nothing anybody can do for us at this point other than their thoughts and prayers, and that’s all that really matters right now."