Kellye Pummill’s arms are covered in tattoos, each one with a different meaning, but with a common thread – her daughter Marissa Pummill.
Nicknamed “Roo,” Marissa loved animals and art, both of which adorn Pummill’s arms. There’s also a reference to six – the number of lives Marissa saved when her organs were donated posthumously.
Since Marissa died at 21 of suicide 3½ years ago, Pummill has become an advocate of organ donation, especially in April, the National Donate Life Month.
“She signed up to be an organ donor when she got her driver’s license at 16,” Pummill said. “We had a friend who had a heart transplant.”
Pummill befriended three of the transplant recipients. In 2017, she attended the Idaho wedding of Kiasa VanCleave, the woman who received Marissa’s liver.
“She held a bouquet with a picture of Marissa as she walked down the aisle,” Pummill said. “It was bittersweet. It helps me a lot with my grief knowing she lives on in six other people, knowing their stories and how thankful they are.”
She received letters from the heart recipient before he died. The lung recipient lives in California and they get together occasionally.
But one person has made his mark: Ryan Nelly of North Scottsdale, who received one of Marissa’s kidneys. The two became fast friends.
“I had been on the list for 13 years,” said Nelly, who fell ill at age 2 after being exposed to E. coli from unpasteurized apple juice. “It was difficult. This was my fourth transplant. I had the three others as a kid. I tried to make the best of my life, working full time.
“A lot of times, I was wondering if I was ever going to get it. The doctors didn’t sugarcoat it. With the previous (failed) transplants, the kidney would have to be an exact match for the body to have the best chance of accepting it.”
The first kidney came from his mother. The second, from a cadaver, ruptured after a day, and the third lasted 11½ years until scar tissue wreaked havoc on the organ. The fourth was a “blessing.”
Before Nelly could reach out to Pummill, she contacted him.
“We met exactly a year later,” Nelly said. “There was a little bit of anxiety. I didn’t know how she was going to be. It was a blessing for me, but I didn’t want to celebrate too much if she was still mourning.
“I’m so inspired by how she has overcome the death of her daughter by doing so much with Donate Life and with suicide prevention. Our relationship is great. We’re old friends at this point. I know a lot about Roo’s history and I know all about Ozzy. It’s fun to get together and catch up.”
Marissa’s heart belonged to her family and her animals, whom she considered one and the same. Her baby was her dog, Ozzy.
“She liked to draw a lot, too,” Pummill said. “She designed these tattoos. She designed one of with a dog’s paw. It’s infinity animals.”
Pummill admitted she was a little leery of speaking publicly about Marissa, who attended Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Skyline High School in Mesa and Chandler-Gilbert Community College.
“I was at the cemetery visiting her and this lady came up to me,” she said. “She and her son were recipients. She inspired me to volunteer with Donate Life. It’s been about four years. I’m better talking about it now.”
Marissa was close with her sister, Tiffany, and cousin Cheyenne Smock.
“She was really outgoing in an introverted way,” Smock said as Ozzy lay between her and Pummill.
“She was kind of loner-ish, but she had an amazing group of friends. When she was with them, her personality really came out. In high school, she was very smart – extremely smart. I looked up to her when it came to education. When she wanted to know something, she did so much research that it would seem like she had a Ph.D. in that subject.”
Smock, who lives in Arkansas, spent the summers with Pummill.
“I can’t imagine a world back then when it wasn’t just me and Marissa,” she said. “I remember our 2 a.m. Walmart runs. We’d do toilet paper forts and cause all kinds of mischief, but we had a lot of fun. She did special diets for all her animals.”
In April, Pummill went to the Capitol on behalf of Donate Life to encourage legislators to push organ donation.
“I’ve also walked in the Fiesta Bowl Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade,” she said. “I helped decorate the Donate Life float at the Rose Bowl. It was awesome. Ozzy makes appearances with me. I love to tell her story.”