Ellen Citrano has no idea how she developed a condition that ultimately destroyed the left ventricle of her heart. But after nearly two decades of medical care at Sharp HealthCare — including a heart transplant — she remains deeply grateful to be alive, as well as a big fan of the doctors who saved her life.
“Dr. Brian Jaski has been my lifesaver,” says Ellen. “Without him and my other doctors, I would have exited from this earth many years ago.”
It was 2003 when Ellen, a Navy veteran and critical care nurse, first started feeling some fatigue, which she attributed to working too hard. Over the next few weeks, however, she began to have shortness of breath, chest discomfort and swollen joints.
Ellen underwent multiple surgeries over the years to stabilize her deteriorating condition. She received two defibrillators — an implantable device that restores the heart's beating if the heart suddenly stops — and four pacemakers, a device that helps control the rhythm of the heartbeat. She eventually had to retire due to her health.
By 2020, Ellen’s heart was failing due to a problem with her mitral valve. Her doctors determined that Ellen would be a good candidate for a nationwide clinical trial to replace a mitral valve without open-heart surgery. She became the first patient in San Diego to have this new minimally invasive procedure.
“Since becoming her heart doctor, our team tried everything to keep Ellen as healthy as possible, for as long as possible, like we do with all of our patients,” says Dr. Jaski. “At Sharp, our patients also benefit from cutting-edge therapies through clinical trials. I was grateful we could offer that option to Ellen.”
Time for a new heart
Unfortunately, over the next six months, Ellen’s condition continued to worsen. Although the mitral valve procedure had been successful, her heart muscle had become too weak. Ellen was placed on the national heart transplant waiting list.
For several months, Ellen was able to remain at home while she waited for a donor heart. In April 2021, however, her heart failure had progressed so much that she was having trouble breathing. She was admitted to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where she would wait for the heart while being connected to life-sustaining equipment.
She spent the time as positively as she could, hanging a disco ball on her IV pole and playing “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees every morning when she walked around the intensive care unit.
“It was a way to bring lightheartedness to something so serious,” says Ellen. “Nurses would come in and out of my hospital room, and we’d sing and laugh and have a good time.”
A few weeks later, a matching donor heart became available and Dr. Rob Adamson, a cardiothoracic surgeon and medical director of the cardiac transplant program at Sharp Memorial, performed Ellen’s heart transplant — the 470th heart transplant performed at the hospital since the program began in 1985.
She even brought the disco ball into the operating room. Now, it’s passed on to the next patient waiting for a heart as a good luck charm.
After her transplant surgery, Ellen spent 11 more days in the hospital. She slowly started to walk, do physical therapy and regain her strength.
Today, Ellen is looking forward to traveling again with her husband. She’s planning a month-long trip to Puerto Vallarta, then a cruise in the Netherlands next year.
She’s also slowly returning to her role as a community volunteer and leader. Ellen has worked with many volunteer organizations, including the Pacific Beach Woman’s Club, which raises funds for StandUp for Kids, an organization that helps teenagers experiencing homelessness; veterans’ community groups; and Shoreline Community Services, an outreach service that connects people with housing and jobs.
Eventually, she’d like to connect with the family of her heart donor so she can have the chance to express her gratitude.
“Going through this process has given me a new perspective on life,” says Ellen. “Live every day and appreciate every moment of it.”
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Jaski about Ellen’s story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.