A Heartwarming Journey To Recovery

Kelly Calvino is all heart. It’s evident in everything she has done throughout her lifetime.

The Heart Of An Athlete
Kelly was a four-year varsity letter winner and three-time team captain was ranked one of the top eight gymnasts in the state her senior year. She was part of the gymnastics team that won back-to-back state championships. Additionally, Kelly was a four-year varsity letter winner in volleyball and also competed in track and soccer as a student at Whitefish Bay High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

When she wasn’t participating in organized sports, you could find Kelly and her entire family on the water—wake boarding outside her childhood home on Lake Michigan, snorkeling at her parent’s condo in St. Pete Beach, scuba diving while on vacation in another country. This love of water sports led Kelly to compete in the one and three meter events as a diver while attending Syracuse University.

She later took up long distance running to stay active as an adult. Kelly actually completed a total of three marathons and nine half marathons during her first two pregnancies, along with a 5K the morning she gave birth to her first son, Parker. She made it all happen with coaching from her mother, who ran through all three of her pregnancies as well.

The Heart Of A Nurse
Kelly chose to major in health and exercise science at Syracuse University but ultimately pursued a nursing career in mostly cardiovascular and thoracic services. She was introduced to cardiology as a kid due to her father’s career in international cardiovascular sales and explored the field further during a college internship with the research team at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Upon observing the difference between medical care and physical therapy in a study for pre- and post-op pediatric cardiology patients who had atrial suffering defects, Kelly was motivated to return to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She has held a variety of nursing positions over the years, including a few positions with St. Clair Health since moving to Pennsylvania. No matter the assignment, Kelly’s gifts in patient relations and results interpretation are evident.

The Heart Of A Mother
It’s no surprise that Kelly passed on her love of water sports to her three sons Parker, Emery, and Finley so they could enjoy these activities together as a family. She wanted her boys to spend their summers enjoying swimming, boating, and more at her family’s lake house in Wisconsin just as she had for so many years.

While Kelly enjoyed 33 summers of her life at Big Cedar Lake, she has only had the heart to return to the property once since they tragically lost Emery four years ago. She’ll never forget working with her nurse sister-in-law to administer CPR to try to revive two-year-old Emery after his father, Tony, pulled him from the water. Though he is gone, he will never be forgotten. Kelly and Tony ensured Emery’s memory would live on through organ donation and an annual nonprofit fundraising campaign.

Because Kelly has always had so much heart to give—as an athlete, as a nurse, as a mother, and more—she never could have imagined that her heart function would be severely weakened in her late thirties. But she and her family knew something was up when she began experiencing symptoms.

“I woke up one afternoon and saw my ankles were extremely swollen. Following my nursing shift, I noticed the swelling had gone up to my knees,” explains Kelly. “Then we had to fly from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin to see family, and I noticed the swelling progressed to my face when we got to my in-laws’ house.”

Kelly visited a Wisconsin hospital after her eldest son, Parker, noticed she was struggling to keep up with the family at the airport. She was experiencing shortness of breath and had somehow gained over 20 pounds in just a couple weeks.

“They gave me medicine to temporarily lose water weight so I could breathe better,” Kelly says. “And while there was indication it was my heart based on test results, they also said it was safe to go home.”

When Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, it was her physician’s assistant neighbor who insisted she visit St. Clair Health for a more thorough evaluation. And that is how Kelly learned she has non-ischemic cardiomyopathy with congestive heart failure. That means she has a weakened heart muscle caused by something other than blocked arteries in the heart.

“Most of us probably assume that’s a condition associated with later ages, and so Kelly was understandably taken aback,” says Christopher Pray, MD, Director of Cardiac Imaging and Heart Failure at St. Clair Health. “But it’s more common than a lot of people realize. We see patients with weakened heart muscles and congestive heart failure really at any age.”

Dr. Pray continues, “When I first met Kelly and learned about her personal life, it really resonated with me. We’re about the same age and I have kids the same age, so I understood the shock and the questions that she had. Watching the fears that she was facing really stuck with me.”

“I didn’t really think it was that serious because I didn’t feel sick other than being short of breath. And I didn’t really believe it at first because we have no history of heart disease in our family,” shares Kelly. “I’m so thankful every day that Dr. Pray ordered a bedside echocardiogram and admitted me for additional testing. I really feel like he saved my life.”

Upon diagnosis, Dr. Pray collaborated with interventional cardiologists to perform a heart catheterization to make sure there were no blockages in Kelly’s heart arteries and measure the pressures in her heart to fine tune the treatment recommendation. Additionally, Kelly was able to undergo a cardiac MRI.

“Our collaborative, multidisciplinary approach allowed us to very quickly understand why Kelly was having this problem and set her up for the right course of treatment with four heart failure medications,” explains Dr. Pray. “I think her quality of life and her prognosis overall have improved tremendously with the therapies that we’ve been able to get her on.”

Kelly adds, “Dr. Pray and the St. Clair Health team take the time to get to know you, not just as a patient, but your history and who you are, so they can take that all into consideration when developing a treatment plan. Plus, I trust Dr. Pray and feel like I can reach out to him anytime with questions.”

With support from Dr. Pray and the St. Clair Health team, Kelly’s heart function improved from 21% all the way back up to a normal level of 50% in less than one year. Dr. Pray says, “It will be an ongoing process to get Kelly back to her normal self, but it’s been very rewarding watching her progress so far. Kelly completed cardiac rehab, continues to tolerate her medications, and is back to work.”

“I am now running on my own again and want to maintain heart function within the normal range so I can run one more marathon in the future. I think I’ll get there with guidance from Dr. Pray, along with support and love from Finley, Parker, and Tony. They have been a big source of strength through all this,” emphasizes Kelly.

Click here to watch a short video to learn more about Kelly’s story.