MIAMI (CBSMiami) – “Just breathe.”
It’s an expression we hear often, but it’s not so easy for everyone. Elizabeth Kellner was told she wouldn’t make it past her 18th birthday because of a genetic condition that affects her lungs.
She knows what it’s like to spend holidays in the hospital. So she does her part to spread a little cheer to patients.
“Nobody wants to be in a hospital. Nobody wants to be in a hospital during Christmas, miss out on events, miss out on having fun,” she said.
Elizabeth missed out on her share of fun growing up.
At just four and a half months old, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic condition that causes persistent lung problems and limits the ability to breathe over time.
“Growing up you have your limitations. You can’t do everything else that your peers or your friends do, as far as something so simple as running around,” Elizabeth explained. “The life expectancy when I was diagnosed was only 18 years old.”
She spent much of her young life being treated at Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
As she got older, it became clear she’d need new lungs.
After being on the organ donation list for three weeks, Elizabeth had a double lung transplant on July 9th, 2007, her “Breathe Day”.
She has never met her donor’s family, but she thinks about them often.
“There isn’t one day that goes by that I don’t think about them or my donor. I always like to think my donor is with me,” she said.
But cystic fibrosis can affect other organs as well, and Elizabeth eventually needed a kidney transplant, too.
She got a new kidney from a living donor in 2011.
Now 34 years old, Elizabeth knows just how precious each breath is.
But she also values the moments that can take your breath away, like a special surprise from someone who knows what you’re going through.
Elizabeth created the “Make ‘Em Smile Toy Drive” in 2007 to give presents to patients at Holtz during the holidays as a way of giving back.
“That moment where the child runs to the stretcher to pick out the toy that they want. The excitement in their eyes is pure joy. It’s very emotional,” she said. “Just letting the families know that there is hope. Keep having faith and keep fighting.”
She wants these kids and their loved ones to know survival is possible.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as a survivor. I do what I have to do. Any curve ball that’s given to me, I just handle it. If I had to describe it in two words, I’d think my strength makes me one as well as my faith. The overall will to live. I love life,” she said. “Live every day like it’s your last. My slogan is, ‘Just love, live and breathe’.”
You can donate toys for the 9th Annual Make ‘Em Smile Toy Drive until December 6th.