Pageant competitor lives her platform

After a whirlwind week at the Miss Ohio Pageant in Mansfield, Chelsea Aiello is back in Tiffin working in the emergency room at Tiffin Mercy Hospital. Although she was not named Miss Ohio, the 2008 Clyde High School graduate did come home with some honors and scholarship money to help repay her student loans from nursing school.

“I won the Miss Photogenic Award and the Jim Southerland Spirit Award. I earned $1,250.00 in scholarships and awards,” she said in a post-pageant interview.

Accoring to a news release, Aiello’s platform is organ donation. In 2009, She donated a portion of her liver to prolong the life of her father, J.J. Aiello. Chelsea had hoped to become Miss Ohio to promote her platform to a wider audience, but the competition also has provided other benefits for her.

“I have learned so much from competing in the Miss America Program. Working with the other contestants reconfirms my faith in the future. It is so easy to only see the negatives in the world, but the girls that compete in the Miss Ohio program are great girls that are doing amazing things for this world,” she said. “This program has given me so much in terms of confidence and life-long friends. I would encourage any girl that has a cause to promote and a desire for self-improvement to get involved in this great program.”

Chelsea said she is eligible to compete for Miss Ohio one more year, if she can win another local pageant. She relinquishes her Miss North Coast title in August, but she plans to remain active with Donate Life through her website,, and Life Connections of Northwest Ohio.

“Organ donation is something that I am very passionate about. With or without the Miss America Program, I will always volunteer with my local chapter of Donate Life,” Aiello said.

In a phone interview with her father, J.J. Aiello said he was diagnosed with fatty liver disease in 2003. By 2005, it had advanced to non-alcoholic cirrhosis. Tests showed the damage had been caused by an infection of hepatitis B. His doctor put him on a treatment regimen to counteract the hepatitis, but his liver continued to deteriorate.

“In 2007, I started having ammonia poisoning attacks. In fact, the first one, Chelsea took me to the hospital from school. Then it was termed end-stage liver disease,” he said. “When your liver shuts down, it turns off your bladder.”

He also had other health issues that contributed to his illness. After collapsing several times at Clyde High School, J.J. nearly died in June 2007. He had to retire from teaching and get his name on a transplant list. That occurred in August 2008, Because his doctor was the chairperson of the transplant team, he was able to get on the list very quickly.

Later that year, his MELD (Model for End-stage Liver Disease) score dropped dangerously low. Information on states the MELD number is used to predict the outcome of a liver transplant. It takes into consideration the recipient’s levels of creatinine, bilirubin and blood clotting ability. Potential living donors also were screened, because it was not likely a liver donor would be available in time. J.J. told his daughter he feared he would not be around to see her graduate from nursing school.

“She said, ‘Why? I’m a perfect match.’ So, she kind of came up with the idea. I think she had been doing some research of her own,” he said. “My skin was kind of gray and ashy, and my fingernails and the whites of my eyes were yellow.”

In spite of the risks, the surgeon determined J.J. could probably withstand the surgery. In January 2009, Chelsea was approved as a living donor, and the procedure took place May 18, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic. The surgeon who was to extract a portion of Chelsea’s liver also became J.J.’s physician because an experienced surgeon was needed for the transplant’s success.

Chelsea explained the transplant process: “The liver has two lobes (a right and left). The larger right lobe is transplanted to the patient because the healthy donor can do fine with the smaller lobe until it regenerates. And yes, both lobes do regenerate to 100 percent functioning within a few months.”

During the operation, the doctor discovered her father’s liver had shrunk to a fraction of its normal size and an encapsulated, cancerous cyst was attached to it. The procedure lasted 18 hours, but the patient only needed one unit of blood. Chelsea was released from the hospital five days after surgery. J.J. needed 10 days before he could be released.

“It’s been four years, one month and two weeks since the surgery,” he said.

His hepatitis has stabilized, and he has returned to a relatively normal level of activity. Besides witnessing Chelsea’s graduation and pageant activities, J.J. has been able to pursue his love for community theater. During his time at Clyde, he directed about 20 student musicals. He also has been singing at his church for about 40 years. Just this past year, he did shows at five different theaters, including “Man of La Mancha” at the Ritz in Tiffin.

A long-time member of Ohio Community Theater Association, J.J. is the OCTA’s Northwest Ohio Regional Representative. Over the years, he has done six productions of “Godspell,” not just as an actor but also as choreographer and director. In 1993, he won a state-level award for his performance in a production of that show. Seeing his daughter onstage is a bonus he thought he might miss.

“I gave her life and she gave it back to me. If it weren’t for her and for being a match, I wouldn’t be here. Obviously, I’m very proud of Chelsea,” J.J. said. “She’s thinking about running for Miss Vacationland.”

He called it “Jackie Mayer’s pageant.” Her Miss Vacationland title propelled her to the Miss Ohio crown and on to Miss America in 1963. Chelsea has not committed to another pageant, as yet. She is focusing on her career and furthering her education in the future.

“Most graduate programs prefer you to have a couple years of experience first so that is what I am doing now. Eventually I do think I will go back to school. In the meantime, I love my job and hope to get my student loans paid off soon,” Chelsea said.