Emily and Chelsea Cornwall

Twins get new hearts; mom gets new perspective

By: Erin Breen

RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL 2/20/2005 09:42 pm

They are just 23 years old, and they are perfect examples of successful, happy, healthy college students. They get great grades, are focused on their futures and have outgoing personalities that sparkle.

They are tall and slender with blond hair, individual style and more of an understanding of life and death than most of us twice their age. As Emily and Chelsea Cornwall see it, they are twins, and they are sisters … and they are here because someone else gave them the gift of life through heart transplants.

At 17, the twins ran track and marathons. But not far into their 17th year, Chelsea began having unexplained water retention and physical problems.

A battery of tests turned up a diagnosis, but treatment didn’t help. Chelsea’s condition worsened over time. Within months, she was on the transplant list, and she was eventually moved to Arizona for an indefinite wait.

“My transplant doctor has even told me that I looked like a walking cadaver at that point,” Chelsea said. “I was so sick and blue from head to foot. The problem with my heart meant that half of it just didn’t work. It was like a big useless bag in my chest.”

While Chelsea waited, Emily began to have heart problems herself.

“I was running one day, and it actually felt like my heart was going to explode.” she said. “ I went to my doctor and said you have to check this out, in light of what my sister is going through.”

It turned out that they had the same congenital heart defect, and Emily began down that road to having a transplant as well.

They both received donor hearts within 10 months of each other. They both recovered, and they are both doing very well at the Universityof Nevada, Reno these days — Emily in marketing and Chelsea in biology. It’s been a life-changing set of circumstances for the entire family.

“I used to be a 70-hour a week workaholic,” said their mother, Dianne. “But this put everything into perspective for us all. Now little things don’t bother us. We take them in stride, because we can see that in many ways we are all lucky to be here together.”

The twins have big plans. Chelsea graduates in May and hopes to work with a defibrillator company. She knows she has a lot to offer patients of any age. Emily will graduate a semester later.

In the meantime, they are the newest faces for the Nevada Coalition on Organ and Tissue Donation’s latest awareness campaign.

“This year’s slogan is, “Don’t take your organs to heaven; Heaven knows they’re needed here.”

You’ll be seeing the twins on billboards, television and movie screens statewide. They hope that by sharing their stories of success, more of us will learn about organ donation and, perhaps, consider saving lives ourselves.

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