Erol Belli was small enough to sit on Renee Gilliard’s lap. His feet couldn’t touch the floor.
For years, they’d spent Christmas together. Their families vacationed in the Florida Keys and the Everglades. One year, she remembers, Belli stayed up until 1 a.m. to talk on Christmas Eve.
But Gilliard never imagined that the Tampa boy who loved soccer and fishing would grow up to be a doctor, and save her life.
Gilliard, 61, survived breast cancer, only to be plagued with cardiac problems later on. Her doctors think chemotherapy drugs weakened her heart over time. A year-and-a-half ago, she was still on her feet 10 hours a day, working six days a week, in the hair salon she owns in Brandon with her husband.
But her health was failing.
“I had been sick a long time,” Gilliard said. “I never knew how bad it was.”
Then earlier this year, Dr. Benjamin Mackie, a heart failure specialist and the medical director of Tampa General Hospital’s cardiac transplant program, gave Gilliard just months to live. When she came in for her initial appointments, Mackie said she wasn’t well enough for a transplant surgery yet. So he started her on a course of drugs. Still, her name was added to the national waiting list for a donor heart.
“I had IV meds given to me at home for months,” Gilliard said.
On April 14, she got the call. A donor heart was available and it was a match. In just a few hours, she’d be in surgery.
The cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon on call that night was Dr. Erol Belli. He’d returned to his hometown of Tampa just 18 months before, after training at the University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for years.
“It’s very unusual for a doctor to perform surgery on a family member or someone they know,” Mackie said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen it happen.”
Belli remembers getting the phone call for the donor heart and looking up the patient information.
“Wait, I know her," he said.
Gilliard was relieved to know it was Belli who would perform her surgery.
“He treated me like a patient and I treated him like a doctor,” she said. “He saved my life.”
Belli remembered feeling nervous about the surgery with so much at stake.
“Nine times out of 10 it goes well, but the pressure is on when you know the patient,” he said.
The surgery was successful and Gilliard is progressing in her first year of recovery. She is expected to live a normal life for many years.
After her surgery, Tampa General gave Gilliard a red heart-shaped pillow with the number 1390 etched onto it. She was the 1,390th heart transplant recipient at the hospital. Tampa General performed the first successful heart transplant in Florida in 1985, and today is one of the busiest transplant programs in the nation.
The hospital performed its 10,000th organ transplant last year, and did more than 550 procedures this year alone — the most in its history.
But still, there’s a nationwide shortage of organ donors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 20 patients die a day from a lack of donor organs.
For the first time in many years, Gilliard said she can hear her heartbeat again.
“I couldn’t with my original heart,” she said. “I think that means I’ve been sick along time.”
It’s not uncommon for transplant patients to realize just how their bodies coped with their failing health in retrospect.
At a routine biopsy appointment the week before Christmas, Gilliard and her husband, Jimmy, toted around the red heart pillow in a bag inside the clinic at Tampa General. It was a rare appointment where she’d get to see both of her doctors at once — Belli and Mackie. She wanted them to sign her pillow.
“Not many people can say they got to hold your old heart and your new one,” Belli said.
Gilliard smiled. “Well, I got to hold the whole you.”
Belli grew up in Brandon and was a graduate of Tampa’s Jesuit High School. He attended medical school at the University of South Florida before heading to UF and the Mayo Clinic for specialty training in cardiothoracic surgery.
It was Belli’s uncle, Wayne Clark, who connected the Gilliards to his family. Clark and Jimmy Gilliard grew up together in Wauchula. Christmas dinner was hosted by the Clarks every year, where both Belli and the Gilliards attended. They quickly became an extended, close-knit family.
“My father was a cardiologist in Tampa for a long time. So he worked long hours. We grew up at my uncle’s,” Belli said. “I grew up going on fishing trips with the Gilliards. They were at my wedding. Now they know my own kids.”
Belli and Gilliard will be together again in just a few days for Christmas at the Clarks in Brandon.
“Is this enough to count as my Christmas gift for the next couple of years?” Belli asked Gilliard.
Yes, she nodded, holding her red heart pillow.