Courtesy David Otunga
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March 29, 2018 03:25 PM

Former WWE superstar David Otunga‘s niece Kylee has finally received a life-saving heart transplant after her family feared she would not survive.

Kylee, 24, has experienced problems with her heart over the last several years, Otunga says. From about the time she was 17, Kylee started to develop symptoms such as difficulties catching her breath and a rapid heart beat. This terrified her, Otunga says, and she frequently thought she was having a heart attack when these symptoms appeared. But it wasn’t until last September that her health started to worsen as she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

“Her heart was basically giving out and shutting down,” Otunga, the former fiancé of singer Jennifer Hudson, tells PEOPLE. “She’s been hospitalized pretty much continuously since then.”

Otunga, who was working at a law firm before he appeared as a contestant in 2007 on the VH1 reality gameshow I Love New York 2, says the sole reason he appeared on the show was thanks to his niece. Turns out, Kylee went behind her uncle’s back and submitted an online application on behalf of Otunga, and the casting directors gave a confused Otunga a call soon after.

David Otunga with his niece, Kylee
Courtesy David Otunga

The 37-year-old says he and Kylee have a tight bond, and he tried to make sure he brought a smile to her any way he could while she was hospitalized — including renting out an entire theater so she could watch Boo 2! A Madea Halloween when she was let out from the hospital for two weeks in November.

“They had to put this pick line, which is like an IV, directly into her heart that had an opening, so we had to sanitize everything,” Otunga recalls. “Nobody could go near her without sanitizing themselves, or if they had a cough, they couldn’t be anywhere near her. My sister and I went and sanitized the theater, the seats and everything, and brought blankets just so she could sit and watch the movie.”

With her health worsening in the weeks that followed, Otunga says he went along with Kylee as she was interviewed to be placed on the heart transplant list. The process, Otunga explains, was stunningly more complicated than he ever thought.

“We had to go on interviews for hospitals to meet the person, meet the potential candidate, and meet the family. They wanted to know what her life plans were,” he says. “We got pretty offended. I remember one doctor was saying, he literally told her, ‘You’re really shy, and I would like to see you more animated.’ ”

Kylee with her mother
Courtesy David Otunga

Otunga says Kylee has selective mutism — an anxiety disorder when someone who is capable of speech cannot speak in particular situations or to certain people — and rarely says very many words. However, as she sat in front of doctors, Kylee “mustered up all of her courage” to tell them her dreams of becoming a chef and a mother one day.

“I thought that was great,” he says. “Little does this guy know how much effort that took for her just to say those few sentences. We were so proud that she did so well.”

Last Saturday, while Otunga was celebrating Kylee’s younger sister’s birthday at Medieval Times, the family got word that a donor’s heart was available. By the following night, Kylee was on the operating table at a hospital in Chicago receiving her new heart.

“She was extremely nervous. She was excited, but really, really scared,” Otunga recalls. “It was almost 24 hours and the heart was in. It was done, and we couldn’t believe it.”

Otunga says Kylee, whose story was first reported by The Blast, is now walking less than a week after her operation, and he hopes she may return home next week.

“It all turned out great. It turned out fantastic,” he says. “We just feel so blessed, and we’re all just so happy.”

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