Denise Ely of Red Bank believed she was going to be the recipient of Princess Diana’s liver when she heard that Diana had died in a car accident on Aug. 31, 1997.
But on that day 22 years ago, Ely’s belief that she would receive an organ belonging to royalty, specifically, was all in her head.
In an interview on Aug. 23, Ely, now 63, said she was being transported to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to undergo a life-saving liver transplant. During the ride on that day in 1997, she said, she heard the news of Diana’s death and hallucinated that she would receive the princess’s liver.
Ely had Encephalopathy – abnormal brain malfunctions and hallucinations caused by end-stage liver disease, which is a result of autoimmune hepatitis, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks liver cells and causes the organ to become inflamed.
Ely needed a new liver to save her life.
As a single mother of two young boys, Ely said she was determined to be present in their lives, adding that she grew up in a foster home in Monmouth County.
Instead of receiving a royal organ, Ely received her new liver from Geraldine Hodges, a 76-year-old deceased woman from Texas. Ely was 42 at the time.
Before the procedure, Ely described herself as “yellow-skinned, sick and sleepy.” After receiving her new liver, Ely had a vibrant new take on life.
At 53, Ely wanted to “give back after receiving a new lease on life.” She earned a nursing degree from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and was hired as a nurse for medical patients at Mount Sinai.
“The same hospital that gave me life through a liver transplant, I became a nurse to give life,” Ely said, adding that she has since retired.
Ely, whose liver will turn 99 on Hodges’ birthday in November, promotes “the miracle of organ donation.”
Her passion, which usually entails volunteer work, has recently led to pageantry.
In June, Ely was crowned first runner-up in the Ms. New Jersey Senior America pageant. The competition, which was held at Harrah’s Resort, Atlantic City, emphasizes and honors women over 60.
“At first I thought I would never be involved in a pageant,” Ely laughed. “I thought (entering a pageant) would be a new type of venue for me to promote my passion, which is organ transplant. I thought if I were to win or be a contestant, New Jersey could see that even though I’m older, and I have an older liver, it would show that you can be a senior and do something (influential).”
The judges scored the pageant participants on their philosophy of life, an evening gown competition, and talent, Ely said, adding that “You are judged on a gown because (the participants) are all too old for bathing suits.”
Ely believes she is the only Ms. Senior participant in the country to have undergone a transplant procedure.
Ely, who took vocal lessons in preparation for the big day, said, “I’m really not a singer. I sang ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor. I chose that song because I have been through a lot. I grew up in a foster home, I had a major liver transplant, and a lot of other things. I wanted to show I will survive. We even changed the words a little to make the song pertinent to my platform.”
Describing her experience with liver disease, Ely said, “There is no cure. I lived with (the disease) for many years and finally at 42 my liver gave out and I went into end-stage liver disease. There is no hope at that point and the only thing that could save you is transplant. I ebbed and flowed with the exacerbation of the disease.
“… They flew in my new liver from Dallas. At that time, 22 years ago, to have a liver that came from a 76-year-old woman was very rare and very unusual … Doctors once said they weren’t even sure the (transplant) would be doable. Well it was doable because here I am. I have had an incredible quality of life with this liver. I say to everyone … my liver is now 98 years old … and I am the epitome of health,” Ely said.
Ely said anyone can sign up to be an organ donor. She said one person can save up to eight lives if they chose to donate all of their organs after they pass away.
Corneas, skin and bone can also be transplanted from one individual to another, she said.
Ely explained that the liver naturally regenerates. She explained that a living individual could, technically, have their healthy liver cut in half if they had chosen to donate half of that organ. Both halves of the same liver will regenerate within two months, she said.
“No one really has to die … Why let your organs go to ashes?” Ely said. “Like me, I was a single mother who was able to be a mother to my two sons. Because of my transplant, I got my sons through grade school, high school and college. They are now productive members of society because a woman decided to be an organ donor.”
Ely, who connected with her donor’s family for the first time in 2018, learned that Hodges also went back to school and received a nursing degree at the age of 53.
Coincidentally, Ely, who spent the first 10 years of her life in foster care, learned that Hodges spent the first 10 years of her life in an orphanage.
During a Red Bank Borough Council meeting on Aug. 21, Mayor Pasquale Menna presented Ely with a proclamation, which formally commends her for her participation in the pageant and her passion to promote organ donation.