Hoping for a new heart: dilated cardiomyopathy puts 18-year-old in need of transplant

Elijah Kelly thought he was having an asthma attack, but the problem was his heart.

That happened in September, when the 18-year-old, who is in foster care, was playing football at Legacy High School. During the heart attack, he had difficulty breathing and passed out. The days that followed were rough, and doctors didn’t know what was wrong.

“I tried to eat and I would throw up,” he recalled Friday afternoon. “I couldn’t lay flat because it would be difficult to breath.”

Kelly, who has been in the foster care system for six years for reasons that he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing, had lived a healthy life until last fall. He was later diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the left ventricle of the heart isn’t functioning properly.

He moved to Salt Lake City on Saturday in hopes of receiving a heart transplant.

The sharp turn in his life is one he never imagined.

Initially, doctors couldn’t identify the ailment attacking his body.

Weeks later, Kelly had an X-ray at Centennial Hills Hospital Medical Center. Doctors discovered his heart was enlarged and the left side wasn’t pumping properly.

“His heart was almost three-quarters of his chest,” said Kevin Combs, his foster father.

Kelly was transferred to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, where he remembers doctors telling him “to go to sleep.” When he woke up, he was at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. He stayed there for three months.

While at the Utah hospital, he underwent surgery for the implantation of a left ventricle assistance device. The device helps his heart function so he can have a normal life until a heart becomes available for transplant.

“It’s a bridge to transplant,” Kelly said, adding that he chose to have the device implanted in his heart so he could graduate from high school. He has been pursuing his diploma at Basic High School in Henderson.

After Kelly was discharged from Primary Children’s Medical Center, his foster parents, Combs and his wife, Brianne, took him in.

But Kelly needed to move to Salt Lake City to be within 30 to 45 minutes of the facility where he would have surgery if a heart became available, Brianne said. They have been told that it could be between one and four months before a heart becomes available. Even then, there’s still the risk of his body rejecting the organ.

Kelly remains hopeful.

“It’s a new chapter,” he said.

He will start all over with a new family in a new home.

He was supposed to be placed in an independent living program in Salt Lake City because he is 18, but given his medical condition, that was not a good option, Brianne said.

“It’s a minimum six-month recovery,” she said. “Who was going to take care of him?”

So she started reaching out to people she knew in Utah and eventually came across a family willing to take Kelly into its home and care for him. The families have a unique connection. “They have a ... son who had heart surgery at 1 week old,” Brianne said.

Amanda and Dan Weishar will look out for Kelly in Utah. Amanda said she saw a post on Facebook and that’s how they got connected with Kelly and his foster parents.

Amanda said their son didn’t require a heart transplant, but he did have open-heart surgery as an infant.

“This is a great opportunity for us to give back,” she said. “He’s going to become part of our family for a little while.”

And Kelly is grateful for their kindness.

“I think it’s great,” he said.

The device implanted in his heart is connected to two batteries that he carries around. He can’t get in the pool, and it’s a long process just to take a short shower. So Kelly is really looking forward to two things once he gets his heart transplant.

“I’m going to be in the shower for two hours, and then after that, I’m going to go into the pool and swim,” he said.

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.