Sometime in the morning Sunday, May 14, Valerie Hoven will stand up from a chair walk up a small set of stairs, stride across the stage and receive her diploma from Drake University.
The process will take her a minute or two at the most – but eight years ago, when she was a high school freshman at Marquette Catholic High School in Alton, Ill., Hoven’s heart was failing her and taking that walk across the stage alone was nearly impossible.
At age 9, Hoven, an Alton native, was diagnosed with restricted cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart condition that means the muscles in the heart are not strong enough to adequately pump blood throughout the body.
As she grew up, the condition worsened and she looked and felt exhausted all of the time. By her freshman year of high school, she could only walk a few feet before becoming exhausted. She was late to every class. Friends carried her books for her. She told only a select few of her condition.
“When you’re a freshman in high school, you don’t want to do anything that makes you seem different,” Hoven says. “I didn’t want pity. I just wanted to go with it.”
There was much she could not do. She attended high school dances, social functions and parties, but she spent most of the evenings sitting down while she watched classmates have a good time. Hoven looked so beat and tired, people often thought she was intoxicated, she says.
At one point, classmates elected her to the freshman court of an annual high school holiday dance. To climb a set of stairs to collect her award, her date had to prop her up and push her up the stairs.
“He basically had to drag me across the stage,” Hoven says. “I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”
Hoven, 22, possesses a sunny, outgoing personality with a quirky charm that draws people close to her. But even the most positive outlook couldn’t change the facts: her heart was dying and the rest of her would soon follow.
Doctors at St. Louis’ world-renowned Children’s Hospital placed Hoven on a transplant list when she was 14. On Father’s Day, 1999, the phone at the Hoven’s home rang at about 11:30 p.m. A sleepy Valerie yelled upstairs for her parents, Randy and Brenda Hoven, to pick up.
Valerie listened in on her line. She heard someone say “Children’s Hospital” and “get ready.” She knew. A heart was there.
“You’re supposed to have a bag ready because when you get the call, you’re supposed to go right then,” Hoven says. “Of course, I didn’t have my bag ready. So I grabbed like a few changes of clothes, a chessboard and my academic letter of all things.”
Surgeons transplanted the donor heart – from a teenager who was just a year younger than Hoven. She woke up after the 6-hour surgery and immediately felt the difference. The crushing feeling on her chest “like a bowling ball sitting on top of you” was gone.
Hoven looked into a mirror. Even after major surgery, her cheeks bloomed rosy red. She felt alive and lively. After a week hospital stay and a brief summer convalescence, Hoven was ready to take on the world.
Late in the summer before her sophomore year, she went to a back-to-school party with friends. After a few hours, she called her dad and asked him to come pick her up.
“Everybody was uncomfortable around me,” Hoven says. “It’s like they didn’t know what to do around me now that I wasn’t `sick Val’ anymore.”
When she landed back at Marquette Catholic in the fall, Hoven enrolled in a series of honors classes. She picked up every activity she could think of. And, well, it got the better of her. She ended up dropping a class and her grades slipped a little. Ironically, all through her illness, her grades remained solid, but with a new heart pumping at top speed, she struggled.
“I think I just didn’t know how to be healthy,” Hoven says. “I tried to be superwoman. I realized I could only be human.”
Hoven enrolled in Drake after high school and finally started to put her illness behind her. While she had no major health hiccups, arriving at Drake, she did not carry with her the baggage of “sick Val” that dogged her during high school days. She was just Valerie and that was plenty good enough.
That bubbly, happy personality matched with her spirit and activity. Hoven became a Student Senator, entertainment chair for the Student Activities Board, president of the Drake Habitat for Humanity chapter, an English-as-a-second-language tutor, a member of Drake’s homecoming court and a popular RA. Classmates chose Hoven the “RA of the Year” in 2005-2006 and University leaders named her “Residence Life Leader of the Year.”
Hoven will earn a degree in public relations from the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She plans to join the PR department of Nestle Purina based in St. Louis, near her native Alton.
In her spare time at Drake, when there was some, she took up long walks and running – things she could never do before the transplant.
“Every time I start to run and my heart starts beating heard, I thank God for that heart,” Hoven says. “I could never do this before. I mean, without this heart, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Most importantly, on Sunday, when she crosses the stage at Drake University’s Knapp Center, nobody will have to hold her up. She’ll do it the way she’s done everything else in her life to this point: with a big smile, great courage and a whole lot of heart.
Valerie Hoven can be reached at (618) 616-6898 or email@example.com.