Mary Eustace and Sandee Marcinek share a bond. While they didn’t know each other for the first 70-plus years of their lives, the first time they met, they felt a connection.

“She hugged me and it’s like I’d known her forever,” said Sandee of Mary. “I think we’re kind of alike.”

Mary Eustace and Sandee Marcinek

 “I see in her the same happy-go-lucky person that I feel I am,” Mary said of Sandee. “I think we are going to be best friends.”

Mary and Sandee are connected at the heart. In December 2019, Mary became the first Blessing Health patient to receive a new heart valve using a minimally invasive procedure called Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement or TAVR.

In June 2022, Sandee became the 100th TAVR patient.

The Blessing TAVR surgical team brought the two former patients together recently to meet each other and celebrate their medical milestones.  The ladies marked the occasion by donning t-shirts Sandee had specially made  – TAVR #1 for Mary and TAVR #100 for herself.

Why do heart valves go bad?

Heart valves can stiffen as a person ages due to damage, scarring or deposits, and subsequently have trouble opening. Because the valve is unable to open completely, the heart muscle must work harder to push blood through the valve. The condition is aortic stenosis. Congenital heart defects can also contribute to aortic stenosis.

Symptoms of aortic stenosis include a heart murmur, breathlessness, chest pain, pressure or tightness, fainting, or a noticeable decline in activity level. 

Jeffery Cook, MD, interventional cardiologist, Blessing Health, says the condition can be missed because its symptoms are also associated with other conditions.

“It’s common to hear patients say. ‘I’ve had a murmur for a long time but no one has thought anything of it.’ By the time we see them, they are very debilitated, very short of breath, passing out, that sort of thing. And, lo and behold, they have severe aortic stenosis.”

How does TAVR help?

Treating aortic stenosis requires replacing malfunctioning heart valves. For many years that required open heart surgery. Some people are not candidates for surgery due to other health conditions. That’s where TAVR can be a real life-saver for patients. It is a minimally invasive procedure, during which a new heart valve is placed via a catheter using X-ray guidance. No open-heart surgery required.

Mary, Sandee and the Blessing TAVR Team

“The valve device deploys without having to stop the heart,” said John Arnold, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon, Blessing Hospital, who participates in TAVR procedures.

TAVR patients can be released from the hospital in two days, compared to 3-5 days for those who undergo surgical valve replacement.

There are guidelines the team follows in order to reach the decision whether or not the patient can be offered TAVR as an option for their care. 

How TAVR changed Mary and Sandee’s lives

“Mary, from the very beginning, impressed me with her bravery and her willingness to be the first person,” said Amy Bates, APRN-AGACNP, Valve Clinic Coordinator, Blessing Health

“Mary said during our first conversation that she very much wanted to be part of the team that brings TAVR to Blessing and those who need it,” Amy continued. “You could not have asked for a better first person.”

“I had every confidence in the world in Dr. Cook,” said Mary. “I never was nervous.  It was wonderful. I am happy that I did it.”

Mary is an avid volunteer around Pike County, IL, and holds a statewide position with a volunteer organization. But when she was suffering aortic stenosis, Mary could not do all that she wanted. “I would get exhausted doing small chores. I went from an active person to one who had to rest often.”

After TAVR, this 76-year-old is as busy as ever. “I’ve been kicking up my heels ever since. I love being a volunteer.”

Sandee is an exercise enthusiast. The 79-year-old was ready to get back in the gym less than a week after TAVR surgery, but waited awhile longer on the advice of her Blessing caregivers.

“I’m back up to doing 50 squats a day,” Sandee said. “I do my hand weights. I do my stepper, a treadmill and a bike.”

“I tell Sandee she runs circles around me,” Amy concluded. “What I love about Sandee is that she has been able to maintain that lifestyle. Had she not had her valve replaced, we don’t think she would have been able to maintain that exercise schedule very much longer.”

For more information on TAVR go to