Her stepdad had to carry her to the bathroom because her feet were too swollen to walk. But Kennedy Turek wouldn't wear sneakers under her senior prom dress four days later.

"I wore the heels, anyway," the 17-year-old recalled, grinning at the thought of those strappy silver shoes she wore to prom in April.

A fresh, healing scar split the neckline of her royal-blue dress. She had received her third heart transplant just weeks earlier.

Though the April 1 surgery and the medical conditions that led to it meant she had to finish her final school semester at home, Turek and her family haven't let that sideline her from the milestones that every high school senior wants to experience.

Last week, Turek attended her class picnic at Liberty Park, where she and Olentangy Liberty High School classmates played a giant Jenga game, soaked in sunshine and won raffle prizes.

Then, on May 19, she experienced the ultimate rite of passage: walking across the stage for her high school graduation.

Employees of the Olentangy Local School District commended Turek's determination. But she just smiles and shrugs at those conversations, because she's just a girl who loves shopping, cheerleading and hanging out by the pool in the summer.

"It's fun to be outside -- and I don't have to wear a mask," she joked at the May 15 picnic.

After a transplant, a patient's immune system can be weakened, so she had to wear a surgical mask for a while.

She teased her mom for baking twice as many chocolate-chip cookies as requested. She was sporting white, flowery sandals with no signs of post-surgery swelling in her feet.

Those feelings -- just being normal -- are exactly what Turek's mother wants for her.

But when she talks about this spring with her daughter, tears well up in 47-year-old Wendy Turek's eyes.

"I think it's a miracle because I saw how sick she was," she said. "It was absolutely the most horrific time of my life."

Kennedy Turek's situation is rare. Just 27 people younger than 21 received three heart transplants nationwide between 1985 and 2011, said Dr. Deip Nandi, a cardiologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, where Turek received her two most recent transplants.

Turek, who lives with her family in Powell, was born with transposition of the great arteries, a congenital heart defect that means the large vessels that carry blood from the heart and to the lungs are improperly connected. They're essentially swapped, unable to provide proper amounts of oxygen for a newborn baby.

Soon after Turek was born, she underwent surgery to correct it.

But her heart became enlarged, and Turek was listed for her first transplant at just six months old. That heart, which she received at Philadelphia Children's Hospital, lasted until she was 6. She received her second transplant in 2007.

Until this year, Turek remained healthy and active. But in January, she collapsed after a routine trip to a gym. She'd suffered a heart attack.

Turek received a stent at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and went home. But in mid-March, she experienced severe chest pain and was admitted to Nationwide Children's, where she expected to spend a few days.

That turned into six weeks.

She doesn't remember many of those days right before the April 1 transplant, she said -- just that she was vomiting constantly and her heart was racing at more than 150 beats per minute.

She needed another heart, and quickly, Nandi said.

Wendy Turek, along with Kennedy's father, Danny Turek, 48, of Lewis Center, kept Olentangy Local School District administrators informed about their daughter's condition with frequent phone calls, emails and text messages. So many e-cards of support poured in through the hospital's website, many from students, that she broke a hospital record.

Finally, classmates and staff at her school got the good news.

"It was like the Blue Jackets scored when we heard she got a heart," said Liberty High School Principal Mike Sterner. "It was just a big roar."

Now Turek is looking ahead. After she's done with rehabilitation and doctors' appointments, she plans to attend Bowling Green State University to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher.

Turek and her mom, both longtime volunteers with Lifeline of Ohio, said her story illustrates the importance of organ donation. They have visited area schools to speak to health classes to increase awareness.

Kent Holloway, CEO of Lifeline of Ohio, said about 60 percent of Ohioans with driver's licenses or state IDs are registered to donate organs. He hopes highlighting stories such as Turek's might help increase awareness.

At the moment, 164 people need a new heart in Ohio, including 12 children, Holloway said.

"If I didn't have a donor, I wouldn't be here," Turek said.

To register to become an organ donor or for more information, go to lifelineofohio.org.

awidmanneese@dispatch.com

@AlissaWidman