The birthday gift that keeps giving: Remarkable Woman Melissa Keller honors late daughter with philanthropy

Womens History

We asked you to tell us about inspiring women in your life. We went through hundreds of nominations in our Remarkable Women contest. Now, we’re sharing our finalists’ stories.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — First-time parents know there’s a lot they don’t know. It’s a trial by fire at the hands of a tiny human who transforms life as you know it. With so much uncertainty, expectant parents share a universal hope: a healthy, happy baby.

That’s why Travis and Melissa Keller were over the moon to bring their sweet, seemingly healthy little Abigail home from the hospital. Over the course of the next decade, they learned expectations can shatter in the blink of an eye; that’s what makes life so precious.

It started at the two-month checkup with a microcephaly diagnosis. Blink. At four months, doctors said Abigail was blind. Blink. At six months she started having seizures. Blink. At 12 months her parents learned she had a T cell deficiency and therefore was immunocompromised. Blink, blink.

The list doesn’t end there. “She was deaf, blind, no immune system, liver dysfunction, bone marrow dysfunction. Nearly every system in her body had something wrong with it,” explained Melissa.

Abigail’s prognosis wasn’t good. Some doctors said she had a year to live, others gave her two. Despite endless tests and scans, doctors couldn’t pin down an overarching explanation for all of Abigail’s diagnoses.

Travis and Abigail Keller days before she passed in 2019 (photo provided)

“We just realized that she’s a little ahead of medical technology,” said Melissa. In the face of insurmountable challenges, she said they had a moment of reckoning. “We’ll always pursue finding a diagnosis, but we’re going to enjoy her as long as we have her.”

Enjoy her, they did — thanks in large part to a team at Dell Children’s Medical Center. Abigail saw 18 specialists.

“It’s not like they say, ‘Oh, your child is diagnosed with this. This is what to expect,’ because there was nobody like Abby. It was the Abby Syndrome,” said Melissa.

A few years into her care, Dell Children’s launched a pilot program called the Children’s Comprehensive Care Clinic (CCC). Melissa was on board from day one. She said the hospital identified 300 of its most medically-complex patients and offered them a one-stop-shop to coordinate resources and care. Melissa served on the CCC parent advisory council for six years. She says it has grown to serve 700 children.

Since each year with Abigail was a gift, the Kellers threw big birthday parties for her and collected money for Dell Children’s and the CCC. The parties got bigger and bigger and as such, so did the donations. Melissa gives all the credit to Abigail.

“It was amazing; this little girl who was deaf, blind, couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, didn’t eat — she touched everyone that met her,” Melissa said.

Abigail made it to 11 birthdays. She died in February 2019. In the years since, Melissa created the Abigail E. Keller Foundation. She’s helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Dell Children’s Medical Center.

“Melissa Keller and the Keller Foundation have provided impactful support to Dell Children’s, most recently seeding the first endowment for the Dell Children’s Comprehensive Care Clinic. Melissa is an inspiration to us all, constantly finding and funding ways to create better experiences for children and families in our care. Melissa knows first hand through all of her experiences with her beautiful daughter Abby how hard the days can be for our families and is using her experience to make brighter days for others.”

Susan Hewlitt, Dell Children’s Foundation

Melissa said her work with the foundation is truly a labor of love. It also helps her feel connected to her late daughter.

“Our family knows what it is to go through. If we can help one family, if we can help one child, then it’s all worth it,” she said.

Abigail’s legacy speaks volumes about a little girl who wasn’t able to talk, but who certainly had a gift for reaching people — a gift that keeps giving.

Travis and Melissa Keller after contributing first endowment for Dell Children’s Comprehensive Care Clinic (photo provided)

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