Connecticut Coffee's owner Jim Shilleh before he had to undergo a heart transplant. (photo: contributed)

For nearly 27 years, Connecticut Coffee and Grill (16 Center St.) has been serving up coffee, breakfast and lunch to hungry Wiltonians. The restaurant’s website, which features their extensive breakfast and lunch menu, claims, “The most important ingredient in our food is family.”

The head of that culinary family is Jim Shilleh, whose delicious food and generous nature have been an integral part of Wilton Center for over two decades. Jim is known for donating to many local events throughout the years and always going above and beyond for his customers.

Last fall, however, it was Jim who needed support while he faced a medical crisis that required his three daughters Gabby Shilleh, Mia Shilleh, and Yasmine Santos to pull together to help their dad.

In November, Jim went to the emergency room because he was suffering from ulcers and the medication he was taking not only wasn’t working, he was feeling worse. He ended up at Yale Hospital, where doctors discovered the shocking news: Jim had congestive heart failure. His heart was only working at 16%.

“When he was admitted they told us that there wasn’t much they could do for him. We were all devastated,” said his daughter Gabby. Jim lost his wife, the girls’ mother eight years ago. “He’s all we have. He’s our lifeline. He’s everything to us,” said Gabby.

Jim was admitted to the intensive care cardiac unit. Doctors were preparing the family for the worst. Thankfully, Jim’s youngest daughter, Yasmine is a nurse practitioner and advocated for her father’s care. “She was just amazing,” Gabby said. Yasmine convinced the doctors to put her father on an ECMO machine. “Once you go on that, you get moved to the top of the transplant list,” Gabby added.

Jim Shilleh on the road to recovery. (photo: contributed)

Three days later doctors found a donor heart. Jim was in surgery for about 12 hours. His recovery has been bumpy, but he is home now and doing well. He is walking every day and going to physical therapy to get his strength back. “It took some time to get the right concoction of medicines to help him. He takes 13 different pills a day,” Gabby said.

During their father’s illness, Gabby and middle sister Mia stepped up to keep Connecticut Coffee and Grill running. “I worried, how am I going to do this? But we all came together and got it done,” said Gabby.

Jim is anxious to get back to work but doctors advised him to proceed with caution. His anti-rejection drugs severely affect his immune system, so he needs to be careful because of COVID. Right now, he’s coming in a couple of days a week, easing back into it. “He’s always been a worker. This is what he’s done his whole life,” Gabby said.

The Shilleh sisters want to thank the residents of Wilton for their incredible support. “The people of this town were so amazing. They offered to help out in so many ways,” said Gabby.

Wilton resident Randi Van Pelt has launched A GoFundMe in Jim’s honor. “Jim has always greeted me with a smile and whenever I asked for a favor he has always said yes, without hesitation,” says Van Pelt.

“It was all very scary, but it turned out to be a miracle. I think my mom was praying for us because she knew we still needed him,” said Gabby. It seems the most important ingredient is family and Jim Shilleh has his immediate and his extended family — Connecticut Coffee’s customers — rallying behind him.

To help Jim Shilleh on the next part of his recovery, visit the GoFundMe campaign established to benefit him.

Jim Shilleh doing something very familiar — cooking, but this time at home. He isn’t fully back to work since his heart transplant in November. (photo: contributed)
Jim Shilleh doing something very familiar — cooking, but this time at home. He isn’t fully back to work since his heart transplant in November. (photo: contributed)