Breen Shea of Columbiana is a tall, barrel-chested man. His imposing build suits his profession as a corrections officer at a federal prison. Breen, however, is about as mean as a kitten. It would be hard to find a kinder, gentler, more fun-loving man.
Breen's wife, Julie, works with preschoolers at the Head Start program in Lisbon. It is difficult to imagine Julie without a smile on her face. Her mouth just seems to curve upward naturally.
Ashley Shea is a typical sixth-grader. She seems to bounce into a room, giggle, talk very fast and bounce back out -- not before giving an antagonizing nudge or remark to her little brother, however.
Kenny Shea is that little brother. As a fifth-grader, he is busy with school, homework and sports of every kind. His sister's antagonisms don't bother him a bit -- he antagonizes right back.
There is a closeness about this family. While they laugh and joke constantly with one another, there is an ever-present feeling of the preciousness of time surrounding their antics.
"It all started when Kenny was 6 years old. We were swimming at the pool," Breen says in telling of his family's heartfelt journey. "Kenny developed a rash."
"I took him to the pediatrician," Julie continues. The doctor examined Kenny's rash and checked his vital signs.
"While the doctor was listening to his heart, he heard a heart murmur," Julie says.
"We put lotion on the rash," Breen says, chuckling.
"The heart murmur took a little bit more," Julie says with a sigh.
The pediatrician referred Kenny to a pediatric cardiologist who informed the couple that their son had a hole in his heart. It had been there since birth.
The information came as a complete shock to the family.
"He didn't have any of the symptoms," Julie says, rattling off the list. "Tires easily, trouble keeping up with other children his age, short of breath. ... That wasn't Kenny at all."
Within two weeks after discovering the hole in Kenny's heart, he was scheduled for open heart surgery at Rainbow Babies & amp; Children's Hospital in Cleveland.
Five years later, the couple still has difficulty talking about it.
"She was a wreck," Breen says when asked how the two handled their son's impending surgery. Julie looks over at her husband. "So was I," he confesses.
"The worst part for me was that they kept stressing that there was a chance he wouldn't make it through," Breen says, tears welling up in this big man's face.
Julie agrees, "It was like something less than 1 percent, but when they are saying those words about your child ..."
Kenny's surgery went well. The hole was patched with a piece of tissue from the outside of his heart.
The night before Kenny came home from the hospital, the family watched "Happy Gilmore" from Kenny's hospital bed.
"That movie has such special meaning to us," Julie smiles, thinking of the absurdity of the show. "It felt good to hear Kenny laugh."
When Kenny came home, Ashley had decorated his room with "Welcome Home" signs and pictures of dogs. "Kenny likes dogs," she explains.
"The patch is supposed to last for life," Julie says, though admitting that she still gets nervous when Kenny goes for his checkup every year.
Kenny, on the other hand, seems to have an understanding of the severity of his condition but views the ordeal as more of a novelty.
"After my operation, I went around making people pay me a dollar to see my scar," he says, smiling.
Breen laughs and shakes his head. Kenny sees his father's reaction and says, "Dad, it was your idea!"
The house fills with laughter in reaction to the secret Kenny has just revealed.
Kenny's scar has faded but the love and laughter that sustained him through his ordeal with the hole in his heart is still what keeps this family whole.