Recipient Stories - Kelly Ellinger

In May 2004, Kelly Ellinger sat in a small Catholic church in Stow, Ohio, listening to a presentation about a trip to the Holy Land. When her cell phone rang, she glanced at the number and her hands began to shake. It was the call she had been anticipating for a month: A donor heart had become available!

Ellinger has a rare systemic autoimmune disease called Churg-Strauss Syndrome. She began suffering from sinus allergies and asthma in her early twenties. Over time her symptoms grew progressively worse. In the winter of 2003, feeling achy, tired and congested, Ellinger thought she had the flu. And, following a round of antibiotics and steroids, her condition improved—temporarily.

About a month later, living alone and working as an interior designer, Ellinger says things started to act up again. Ellinger continues, “I got a terrible pain in my back that spread a few days later into my chest. After a restless night, I drove myself to the hospital.”  Doctors performed an EKG and determined that the 35-year-old was having a heart attack.

Ellinger was rushed to a larger hospital and taken straight to the heart catheterization laboratory, where numerous doctors convened. “I could tell they were baffled and that something was terribly wrong,” says Ellinger. “I saw my heart on the screen; it looked like it was quivering.”

Physicians inserted a balloon pump to help Ellinger’s heart, and moved her to the intensive care unit. Her condition worsened through the night, and the next morning a priest arrived at the bedside of the dying patient. “It was almost like I was in someone else’s body,” says Ellinger. “I knew he was anointing me.” But her family would not give up. They insisted she be moved to a hospital known for its cardiac care.

At the new hospital, Ellinger received another balloon pump and her condition stabilized. After three weeks and lots of medical tests and speculation—Ellinger was diagnosed with Churg Strauss Syndrome. She began steroid treatment, but the damage to her heart was severe. She moved in with her father, where she lived for more than a year wearing an external defibrillator in case her heart stopped. She no longer worked and slept 18 hours a day.

One month after being placed on the organ transplant waiting list, Ellinger received her new heart on May 2, 2004. Within hours, she knew the transplantation was not only life-saving, but,  life-altering. “My fingers were pink, and my lips were no longer blue,” says Ellinger. “I just felt better.” Three days later, she was on a treadmill. That summer, she played softball.

Ellinger’s new heart led her to a new career.  After earning a degree in social work, she joined Lifebanc as an in-house transplant coordinator for Akron City Hospital—Summa Health System. She currently serves as a family support liaison for Lifebanc, facilitating the organ and tissue donation process, collaborating with the health care team and supporting the donor family. 

She hopes that families in the midst of tragedy decide to donate their loved ones’ organs. “If you can’t make your family member better, what’s the next best thing?” says Ellinger. “Let’s save some people!” No matter what a family decides , Ellinger respects their choices.

A year after her transplant, Ellinger journeyed to Israel, a voyage that seemed like a pipe dream when she sat in that Stow church just 13 months earlier. The highlight of her trip was being baptized in the Jordan River. “I was baptized in a Catholic church as a baby,” says Ellinger. “But being baptized in the Jordan River after going through a heart transplant was amazing!”

Kelly has since met and married her prince charming in a magical ceremony at Disney World in September, 2011. Dreams really do come true, you just have to believe!