When she was just 10 months old, Ella Kate received a heart transplant. Two years later, she met one of the heroes who made it possible.

Child Health, News | 3 years ago

A Heart, A Hero, and a Whole Lot of Care

When she was just 10 months old, Ella Kate received a heart transplant. Two years later, she met one of the heroes who made it possible.

Organ donation has been an important cause for the Leitner family for two years. Their firstborn, Ella Kate, was born with tumors throughout her tiny heart, and it’s thanks to a heart transplant at Levine Children’s Hospital that she’s here today. “Organ donation truly is a miracle in action,” says Melanie, Ella Kate’s mom.

The 3-year-old’s parents, Melanie and Mike, have always been organ donors, and now they’re advocates who raise awareness by sharing their story. Melanie has spoken at countless events for LifeShare Carolinas, an organization that helps facilitate organ, tissue and corneal transplants.

“I know in my heart if it wasn’t for Ella Kate’s donor, our story would have a much different ending,” says Melanie. “And I feel like it’s our responsibility to encourage others to donate life.”

Last November, after Melanie shared their story to a donor group at Atrium Health Lincoln, she was told there was someone very special who wanted to meet her. It was Mark Noles, a LifeShare employee who assists in organ transfers across the east coast – he was one of the heroes who helped transport Ella Kate’s heart two years ago.

“I literally jumped into his arms for a hug,” says Melanie. “So many emotions were wrapped into that moment. I couldn’t speak, so I just squeezed him tight.”

The moment was equally moving for Mark, especially when he met Ella Kate and gave her a high-five. “I very rarely get to see the happy side,” he says. “It was overwhelming to say the least.”

“Everything seemed to work out perfectly”

The Leitners remember when they got the news there was a heart for Ella Kate. Mark remembers it, too, from making calls to setting up flights and coordinating ambulance rides to and from the hospital. “Everything seemed to work out perfectly,” he recalls.

Mark doesn’t always get to hear how patients are doing after their transplant, and he certainly doesn’t always get to meet them. Even so, he makes it a point to text the transplant team later to check in – the day Ella Kate received her heart, he got a thumbs up in response. “Melanie mentioned how they were up all night after they got the call, and I just said I was right there with them,” he says.

For Mark – for things to come full circle in such an extraordinary way – it really validates why he does what he does. “Being able to see her running and just being a kid after what she and her family have been through to get here makes it very special to me,” he says.

“Ella Kate is amazing at being fabulous”

It’s been two years since her heart transplant, and Ella Kate is happy and loving life. “Ella Kate is amazing at being fabulous,” says Gonzalo Wallis, MD, one of Ella Kate’s heart specialists who remembers how much the little girl loves to dress up.

Ella Kate will always be closely monitored, and she’ll be on medication for the rest of her life to protect her heart and keep it healthy. But still, Melanie says life with Ella Kate is easy – or as easy as life with any sassy, energetic 3-year-old can be.

Today, Ella Kate is even a big sister. When Melanie found out she was pregnant with twin boys, she knew exactly where they’d go for care: to the place that’s like home, with the care team that’s like family. “I knew if there was a chance of these babies needing to be in the hospital, Levine Children’s Hospital was the only place I could imagine them,” says Melanie.

Organ donation is a gift that touches everyone – families, donors and beyond. It’s truly a miracle in action, and the Leitner family’s ongoing story is proof miracles happen every day.