NEW JERSEY: For organ recipient Denise Ely, every day is a grateful one to embrace life. The month of April, designated as National Donate Life Month is an emotional roller coaster for Ely. It's a time of extreme gratitude, great excitement for life, vivid memories that sometimes haunt, deep reflection, and Wall Street bell ringing celebrations!
TAPinto had the opportunity to sit down with Red Bank resident Denise Ely, and hear her amazing gift of life story:
Twenty-two years ago, in 1997, Denise Ely was at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. She was in dire critical condition with end stage liver disease due to a genetic autoimmune condition that had attacked her liver from the time she was a teenager. Then the 42 year old single mom of two young boys was desperately awaiting a liver donor.
Denise comments, "I was so scared for my boys Evan and Eric, only 8 and 11 at the time. I grew up in foster care from the time I was 3 weeks old, and I loved my foster mom but my fear was that my boys might lose me, lose their mom. I lived for my boys and my body was deteriorating. I was even hallucinating at times from all of the toxins in my body. It was bad. I was in critical condition and the only hope for my survival was a liver donor. I was hospitalized for 3 months without any donor match and my boys were terrified they would never have their mom home again. Then one day, in my hospital room I was alerted that 'the call came in'. I got up showered, fixed my hair, put my makeup on and my special white robe with the blue piping I had ready for the occasion. I made those hard to make calls...talked to my boys making sure they knew how much I loved them, hoping I would speak with them again."
There was a 76 year old woman from Texas who had passed and her liver was a match for Denise. However doctors were concererned because of how old the donor was, and they were not sure the transplant would work . Ely continues, "It was rare at that time to use an older liver. Twelve hours later I was in recovery. A week and a half later I was home with my boys. The recovery at home was not easy but I was so happy and thankful to be given life!"
Denise Ely's transplant surgery was a success twenty-two years ago, and she's been making the best of everyday since then. "It was truly a miracle, I was given a whole new chance at life again and you better believe I was determined to make the very best of it. " Denise Ely continued, "I once had a successful career on Wall Street, but I came out of that transplant thinking completely different. I wanted to give back."
That's exactly what she did, and continues to do. Denise Ely went back to school, this time to study nursing at Rutgers. Ely comments, "I was determined to help others. I had always wanted to be a doctor and nursing was something I set my mind to after the transplant, and somehow I did it. It took me a while but I graduated with my BSN at age 52. I was not the oldest graduating nurse believe it or not, but I sure had the oldest liver!"
Denise Ely began her nursing career at the same hospital that she had her liver transplant at. Ely comments, "It was a complete circle of life for me. I began working to save lives at Mt. Sinai, the very same hospital that had given me back my life."
After retiring from her nursing career, Denise now has more time for her passion of organ donation awareness. As an organ and tissue donation advocate she provides testimonials and volunteers regularly for both NJ Sharing Network and LiveonNY. "In 2020, NJ Sharing Network will be celebrating the birthday of my 100 year old liver at their Transplant Games in the Meadowlands, NJ" adds Ely. Denise travels to different hospitals, schools, nursing homes, special events, etc. "I want everyone to hear and see the positive impact that organ donation can make. I am eternally thankful for my 'donor mom' because she gave me life by the gift of her liver. Her family made a critical decision at such a sad time in their lives. At such an emotionally difficult time they had the time to pause and think of giving to others. It's really a miracle. They gave the chance of life to someone else and I feel so fortunate that someone was me. I love my donar mom in a way that is so connected."
In 2018, Ely along with her son Evan, traveled to Texas to visit the family of her donor, Geraldine Hodges. It was an emotional bittersweet meeting, but one that began a wonderful relationship between Denise Ely and the family of her donor. The daughter of Geraldine Hodges, Rebecca Roper said in an interiew with CBS Local Affiliate in Texas, "It (the letter from Denise wanting to meet the family) came to me on my mother's 95 birthday. I cried all the way through it....It's just a wonderful feeling to see the resut of what happened and the decisions that were made. I know without a shadow of a doubt that she (Geraldine) would be so happy with what you have done with your life, and that you were the one."
Ely comments, "There are coincidences about me and my donor mother that are really unbelievable. We both became nurses at age 52, what are the odds of that? Also, I was raised in foster care and my donor mom was raised in an orphange. We have unusual parallels. It's an honor to carry her liver and I thank her all the time." Ely has her donor mom's picture in a heart frame that she can convert to wearing on a necklace for special donor events. "I love wearing her picture, I am so proud and so thankful."
The daugher of a mother who gave her up at only three weeks old, was saved by a mother that never knew her.
Just a couple weeks ago, Denise helped to ring the Nasdaq closing bell for Donate Life Month with LiveOnNY. It was the second year that Denise was invited to help ring the bell and of course she jumped on board!
In 2018, Denise Ely was honored as one of Hackensack Meridian Health's Women who Rock, an event to celebrate women who make a positive impact on their family, friends and community, and selflessly give their time and energy to those in need. Watch this video to hear Denise and her son Evan speak about her giving back:
VIDEO: Listen to Denise Ely and her son Evan talk about her misison of giving back and her advocacy for organ donation.
So, what's coming up next for Denise? Well she's slowing it down and taking a break after all of her volunteer work? No, just the opposite, Denise Ely is busy taking voice lessons right now, preparing her singing/dancing number for the talent portion of the June 5, 2019 New Jersey Senior American Pageant at Harrah's in Atlantic City. Ely comments, "I'm really looking forward to the pageant. It's a lot of fun and we are are working towards the same goal of giving back, so there's such a positive energy with the whole organizaiton."
Denise wants everyone to realize how important organ donation is; "You might think that you are too old to be an organ donor but liver donors can be as old as 90." The interesting fact about a liver is that it regenerates. Just like Prometheus in Greek Mythology, (like you see the statue in Rockefeller Center), when a Titan stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humankind, Zeus chained him to a rock for the birds to eat alive. Zeus sent an eagle to eat the Titan's liver daily and then every day it grew back...it regnerated. I think about Greek Mythology and how the liver regeneration was understood. I want everyone to know, it's not too late to save a life, to give the gift of life. It's something that's so easy to do and it can change the world! You have the power to be that change. Sign up to be an organ donor today. Go to njsharingnetwork.org "