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Mother’s Life-Saving Surgery Inspires Heart of Girl Scout Project


By Michelle Brubaker   |   April 28, 2016

“Like an elephant was sitting on my chest.”

That’s how Emily Santelices describes what she felt before being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Unable to walk up stairs without gasping for breath, the mother of two was referred to UC San Diego Health where she was told she wouldn’t live past two years without a valve replacement.

“I had been living with symptoms for three years, but toward the end, I could barely get through the day,” said Santelices. “That was not the quality of life I wanted as a mother.”

girl scouts troop

As soon as Santelices was introduced to Victor Pretorius, MBChB, cardiothoracic surgeon at UC San Diego Health, she said she knew her life was in capable hands.

“He explained the different approaches to a valve replacement in terms I could understand, and together, we came up with the option that had the highest success rate. All I kept thinking about was my kids,” said Santelices.

There are two options for a valve replacement: tissue heart valves or mechanical heart valves. Tissue heart valves are harvested from pig heart valves (porcine) or a cow heart sac (bovine) and have a low requirement for anticoagulation therapy, which reduces the incidence of bleeding. A mechanical heart valve is made from pyrolytic carbon, is the most widely used and will last a patient’s lifetime, but has a higher requirement for blood thinners.

“When Emily arrived as a patient, she was quite symptomatic from her narrowed valve and had to adjust her lifestyle to cope,” said Pretorius. “We decided to perform a tissue heart valve replacement because she is still young and wanted the option of having more children, and in addition, she was not keen on taking blood thinners daily for the rest of her life.”

UC San Diego Health performs approximately 150 valve replacement surgeries annually, using a multidisciplinary approach.

“Our patients are evaluated by all specialists in one visit, greatly reducing the need for multiple appointments,” said Pretorius.

Santelices’ four-hour procedure was a success. She recounts through tears that Pretorius and his team were by her hospital bedside from the time she underwent surgery to discharge.

“After the procedure, Dr. Pretorius went into the waiting area to explain to my young daughter that her mommy was going to be OK,” Santelices said. “It still makes me emotional thinking about how much that meant to my family.”

Santelices was able to breathe and walk soon after the surgery, but the recovery process in general has been gradual. One year later, she says she finally feels like she can keep up with her children again.

“I’m so grateful for all that was done for me and wanted to give back,” said Santelices, who is also a Girl Scout Troop leader.

As a community services project, Santelices’ troop decided to hand-make pillows for cardiac patients. The heart shaped pillows, each with a tag reading “From Our Hearts to Yours,” took several hours to sew, using materials purchased from fundraisers and cookie sales.

“We wanted to make these pillows for patients like my mommy,” said Sarah, Santelices’ daughter. “It was really fun and made us happy to help others.”

heart patient

Small pillows are actually critical during a cardiac patient’s recovery. They are held tightly against the chest for sternum support while coughing post-surgery.

“During most heart valve procedures, breathing and circulatory functions are simulated using a ventilator and a heart-lung machine. Unfortunately, vapor can settle in the patient’s lungs, causing a cough that puts pressure on the rib cage. If not supported, the cough can cause pain and other complications,” said Pretorius.

The troop delivered 28 pillows to the Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center, where they were greeted by Pretorius, who also reunited with Santelices.

“She looks great, and I was very touched to see her troop donate such a personal project that will be incredibly valuable to our patients,” he said.

The first patient to receive one of the pillows was a woman recovering from heart and lung surgery. She was having a hard day, but her eyes lit up when she received a pillow and learned who made them.

“This is so special and has really turned around my whole day,” said Eugenia Barton. 

“Our troop is always looking for ways to give back to our community, but this project has special meaning that truly warms my heart – and new valve,” said Santalices.

The troop plans to continue making the pillows for cardiac patients. If you are interested in donating for the materials, please e-mail Santalices at

To learn more about the featured medical specialties, please visit:

Cardiovascular Services

Heart Valve Repair and Replacement