Noted Pacific Beach volunteer has new lease on life after heart transplant

Bob and Ellen Citrano of Pacific Beach. Ellen recently received a heart transplant.
Bob and Ellen Citrano of Pacific Beach. Ellen recently received a heart transplant.

Pacific Beach resident Ellen Citrano has dedicated her life to serving others — first, as a critical care nurse for 40 years and then as a volunteer in her beloved community.

But her passion for volunteering hit a snag this year when she had to undergo a heart transplant — the result of a longstanding virus in her heart.

On May 1, Citrano became the 470th person to receive a new heart at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa, courtesy of thoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Adamson and his team.

Camilla Bicknell visits her longtime friend Ellen Citrano in the hospital.
Camilla Bicknell visits her longtime friend Ellen Citrano in the hospital.
(Courtesy of Camilla Bicknell.)

Citrano’s lifelong friend, Camilla Bicknell, put it another way: “We called it that she had a change of heart.”

“People talk about she got a new heart. Well, the heart wasn’t new; it was used. You can’t get a new heart,” Bicknell said with a laugh.

This playful description of Citrano’s major surgery is indicative of her sense of humor.

“I think the main thing is that she just has such a wonderful personality,” said her surgeon, Dr. Adamson. “She gave us a disco ball to put up in the (operating) room because she wanted to go off to sleep with the anesthesia with that disco ball spinning. That epitomizes her wonderful spirit. She’s very playful and has a very intact sense of humor.”

For Citrano, 67, the disco ball — which she ordered on Amazon and had delivered to the hospital — was a way to relieve the boredom of being hospitalized, hooked up to machines and IV poles while waiting for another heart.

“Every morning, when it was a change of shift when the nurses go in and the nurses go out, I would play ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ And they’d come in and sing and we’d laugh and have a good time,” she said. “And so when I went to the OR for my heart, I said, ‘It’s coming with me.’”

Building a life

Citrano is originally from Wisconsin. After graduating from college with a nursing degree, her father suggested she join the Navy as a way to see the world. And that she did. She spent time in San Diego, Oakland, Hawaii, Atlanta, London and Okinawa, Japan.

It was during her time in Okinawa that she met her husband, Bob. The two married in Hawaii and ended up back in San Diego after years of being stationed in various other cities. They’ve lived in the same home in Pacific Beach since 1992.

The Navy was also where she met fellow nurse Bicknell in 1977. Citrano and Bicknell have remained best girlfriends since then.

“She’s more like a sister than a friend,” Bicknell said. “She was an only child, and I only have a brother, so it was sort of like we were sisters.

“She’s probably the most giving person. She always wants to be helpful. Good thing she chose being a nurse. That’s sort of what we do as nurses. Unfortunately, because of her illness, she can’t do as much volunteering, but she does what she can do and always gives a little extra, too.”

Citrano’s long list of volunteering includes the Society for Human Resources Management, the National Association for Health Care Recruiters, the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, Shoreline Community Services and the Workforce Investment Board of San Diego County. She is also the first vice president of the Pacific Beach Woman’s Club and a former office volunteer with Pacific Beach Town Council.

“Yeah, I just love the community,” Citrano said. “I love the programs that we have in Pacific Beach. I love volunteering. And that was part of my plan. Getting sick put a little bit of a damper into it because I had wanted to be a volunteer when I got to retire.”

Citrano’s name is so well-known in Pacific Beach that in January, the Pacific Beach Town Council honored her by creating the Ellen Citrano Caring and Compassion Award, which will be given each year to a community member who exemplifies Citrano’s hard work in helping those who are less fortunate. The first recipient of the award was Caryn Blanton, a community activist and executive director of Shoreline Community Services, which aims to eradicate homelessness in Pacific Beach.

Heart complications

Citrano said her heart issues began way back in 2003, after she developed a virus in her heart.

“We didn’t know what it was. I was sick. It’s kind of something like rheumatic heart disease. Then by 2005, I was pretty much out of commission,” she said.

She was forced to retire from her job as a critical care nurse due to the condition. But, with various therapies and treatments, she was able to enjoy her retirement and become active as a community volunteer.

But in January 2021, after a heart valve procedure didn’t work as planned, Citrano was placed on the heart donor recipient list. According to Bicknell, Citrano had always maintained she would never get a heart transplant, but as the reality of the situation set in, Citrano said her experience as a nurse gave her a unique perspective on her own health crisis.

“The beauty of it is I’m a retired critical care nurse. I worked with heart transplants and hearts all my life. So it didn’t shock me that much, if you will, to know this is going to be happening and understanding it. I felt prepared, I kind of understood what it was,” she said.

The night before Easter, Citrano had trouble breathing. She went to the ER and was admitted. After a few weeks, they found a donor heart that matched and within a few hours, she was in surgery receiving a heart transplant.

Dr. Adamson said the quick turnaround from finding a donor to surgery is common. It’s a race against time to ensure the donor heart doesn’t deteriorate to the point of being unusable.

He said the life expectancy of a heart transplant patient is generally very good.

“We had a patient not long ago that celebrated her thirtieth-year anniversary. Thirty years post-transplant,” he said. “So I think the sky’s the limit, it’s very dependent and highly variable, but someone with Ellen’s background in medicine and her wonderful attitude and she’s so attentive to things that I think she’ll do wonderfully.”

Citrano’s smooth recovery is already a good sign. She spent 11 days in the hospital post-transplant and has been home recovering ever since, and is even back to some of her volunteering duties.

Making connections

Citrano won’t know the story behind her donor heart until at least six months after the surgery. Then, if the family of the donor heart wishes, they can make contact. Citrano is already preparing to write them a letter.

“Emotionally, it’s going to be challenging. I don’t know how I’ll handle it when I ever talk to them,” she said. “Right now, I go up and down with a lot of emotions. Part of that is all the medication I’m on and dealing with. They give you a lot of medicines.”

She is on 23 different medications that are adjusted weekly based on her blood level, she said.

While Citrano and her husband don’t have any children of their own, they’ve unofficially adopted a boy who grew up in their condo complex. She said the boy, Dylan, has become part of the family and was the one who gave her the strength to cope with her illness and recovery.

Dr. Adamson said that transplant recipients often find themselves with a new lease on life, post-surgery.

“One of the neatest things about transplant patients in general is they now have a very new and urgent appreciation of life because they know how close they were to dying, and now they have this wonderful sense of being given another chance that they never really expected. So their bodies improve, their emotional state improves,” he said.

Citrano already has big plans for when she’s finally able to travel again. She’s planning a month-long trip to Puerto Vallarta in October, and then a Viking cruise next June.

And, with her new lease on life, you can bet she’ll continue her active volunteering in the community to help those who are less fortunate than she.