cnnheroes ava kaufman portrait
CNN Heroes: Ava Kaufman
05:42 - Source: CNN
Los Angeles CNN  — 

Twelve years ago, Ava Kaufman was fighting for her life. Now, thanks to a donor heart and successful organ transplant, she’s alive – and saving others.

“My life changed on a dime,” said Kaufman, who was a professional dancer and black belt in taekwondo when an autoimmune disease went undiagnosed and wiped out her muscular system. She ultimately ended up on life support in intensive care with organ failure.

“I went from living this big life to not knowing how I was going to survive.”

In what she calls a series of small miracles, Kaufman was given a second chance at life.

On her birthday in 2009, she received a new heart and was put in a medically induced coma for two months. When she was brought out of the coma, she thought she was dying and promised God if she could live to raise her young daughter, she would do everything she could to give back.

Today, Kaufman is doing just that.

After volunteering in Los Angeles hospitals and mentoring other transplant patients, Kaufman started the non-profit, Ava’s Heart. She and her organization offer transplant patients services that are often not covered by insurance, including food, gas, co-pays on medications, and housing.

“What I found out was that if you don’t have post-transplant housing, you can’t get listed,” Kaufman said.

She learned that for the nearly 110,000 people in the US waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, it’s not just a matter of adding your name to the list. Patients often must show financial security and be able to afford transportation and housing near their transplant hospital. And for some – especially patients hoping to receive a transplant in a big city like Los Angeles, where rents are high and hotels are expensive – the cost alone could be a barrier.

Kaufman runs two housing locations – a home called Ava’s House and a three-bedroom apartment – where she houses up to five transplant patients and their families at a time, at no cost, after their surgery. This allows them to remain close to their transplant hospital for the duration of their aftercare, typically about three months.

Acceptance to the program is need-based and there is a rolling acceptance based on what the organization can provide. Since she started, Kaufman has helped about 175 people with post-transplant housing, and about 150 more with support services and financial assistance.

Her organization also helps donor families, which Kaufman says, “makes the whole circle complete.”

“When I first started Ava’s Heart, I got a call from a mom who said, ‘My son was killed in a drive-by and I knew that he would want to be an organ donor, so we donated his organs, and I don’t have money to cremate him. Will you help me?’”

Kaufman said there are other costs that donor families cannot afford, such as cremation and burial costs for their loved ones.

“One organ donor can save eight lives and then there’s tissue and skin and eyes and blood vessels and so many other things,” Kaufman said. “The donor is the whole story. Without the donor, there are no transplant centers, no transplant surgeons, no me. In my eyes, the donors are the heroes.”

To date, Ava’s Heart has helped nearly 90 families with burial costs for their loved ones whose organs have saved countless lives, she said. Kaufman also works closely with organ procurement groups to build relationships with donor families and spread awareness about the importance of organ donation.

At 71, Kaufman works out every day and has no plans to slow down.

“I feel like I was chosen to do this,” she said. “I have a mission. When I made a promise to God, I didn’t know what it was going to be, but it turned out to be my non-profit, Ava’s Heart.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Ava’s Heart website and see how to help.

To donate to Ava’s Heart via GoFundMe, click here