True or False: Can Humans Live Without Heart Valves?

By Adam Pick on January 9, 2009

Well… What do you think?

Can humans be born and live without one or more heart valves?

My immediate reaction to that question would be, “Not a chance!”

Then again, we live in a world where anything is possible. On that note, Tori Higgins (pictured below) proves that humans can be born and live without a heart valve.



Tori Higgins was approaching the end of her cardiovascular workout, the lone teenager in a fitness center full of elderly heart attack survivors, when shades of pink began to spread across her ivory cheeks.

The change in complexion symbolized dramatic progress the 14-year-old girl has made over the past 21 months in her battle against a life-threatening heart condition.

“When I started working out, I could only do five minutes on the treadmill; now I can do a half-hour and I feel pretty good,” Tori said recently during one of her twice-weekly workouts at Mercy Health Partners’ H.E.A.R.T. Center.



Tori is the youngest patient ever to participate in Mercy’s heart rehabilitation program since the facility opened in 1988, said Blair Moreau, manager of Mercy’s H.E.A.R.T. Center.

The Grand Haven teen doesn’t need a New Year’s resolution as motivation to lose weight or get in better shape. Her goal is not to fit into a size-0 dress or look like some rail-thin model on a magazine cover — it’s something much simpler and far more profound.

“I want to live,” Tori said.

Tori Higgins was born with pulmonary atresia. Her heart had three valves instead of four. Missing was the pulmonary valve, the loss of which greatly reduced blood flow from her heart to her lungs and, in turn, decreased oxygen levels in her blood.

That she is even alive is something of a miracle. Tori’s skin was blue at birth, a phenomenon caused by a lack of oxygen in her blood.

“When she was born, the doctors didn’t expect her to survive,” said her mother, Jennifer Higgins.

Doctors operated on Tori in the first week of her life and again when she was eight months and nine years old. In one of the early procedures, doctors placed a shunt between her aorta and pulmonary artery to increase blood flow to the lungs.

Those procedures kept Tori alive, but did not fully resolve the problem. She still needs a new heart valve.

Absent a fully functioning heart valve, Tori risked a fatal heart attack if she over-exerted herself, according to medical experts and her mother.

Jennifer Higgins said her daughter’s skin would turn shades of blue or gray if Tori exercised too vigorously. Sometimes, Tori passed out while participating in physical activities; on one occasion, her heart stopped.

“I had to perform CPR to bring her back,” her mother said.

Unable to participate in most physical activities, Tori gained lots of weight and lost much of her self-esteem. By the time she was old enough for the valve replacement surgery, Tori was too unhealthy to survive such a procedure.

Doctors knew the long-term solution for Tori’s condition involved the surgical installation of a pulmonary heart valve from a pig or cow.

But Tori was caught in a Catch-22, a no-win situation.

She needed a new heart valve to regain her health. But doctors wouldn’t perform the necessary surgery because her heart was too weak and she had asthma.

The quickest way for Tori to strengthen her heart and make herself a candidate for surgery was to exercise. But that could have killed her.

“The doctors told us Tori would have to lose 50 to 100 pounds before they would do the surgery,” her mother said.

Tori’s mother said officials at local health clubs didn’t want the girl working out in their facilities because they feared a lawsuit if she suffered a heart attack.

Frustrated and out of options, Jennifer Higgins turned to the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor for help. “When I started working out, I could only do five minutes on the treadmill; now I can do a half-hour and I feel pretty good,”

Doctors at U-M also refused to do the surgery until Tori lost weight. But they did provide a supervised exercise regimen for the girl, which was then transferred to Mercy’s H.E.A.R.T. Center in Muskegon.

Still, there was another obstacle: Tori’s family didn’t have sufficient health insurance or the cash to pay for the program at Mercy.

Mercy Health Partners agreed to tap a charitable fund established by the late Clita R. Anderson to help cover the cost of Tori’s treatment. Anderson, a longtime local teacher who died in 2005, donated thousands of dollars to help cover the cost of health care for lower-income children and those without insurance, Moreau said.

Since she began exercising in April 2007, Tori has been transformed from an inactive, morbidly obese and unhappy teenager to a thinner, healthier, happier child.

“She does 50 minutes of aerobic exercise — that’s a lot for anybody,” said Karen Burnett, an exercise specialist at the Mercy H.E.A.R.T. Center who works with Victoria.

“Her resting heart rate is in the 80s and 90s (beats per minute) and she gets it up to around 140 when she’s exercising,” Burnett said. “That’s pretty impressive considering all of her physical conditions.”

Technically, Tori is considered disabled because of her heart condition. She may have a malformed heart muscle, but those who know her say she has the spiritual heart of a lion.

Tori has stuck with her exercise program despite having a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, a painful condition that would keep many adolescents on the coucd 62 pounds since she started the exercise program at Mercy and is closing in on her goal of losing 100 pounds. She also has more strength, stamina and agility and can now mount a horse without help from others, her mother said.

Tori’s physical transformation has also improved her outlook on life, according to her mother.

“Before she started exercising, she was always mad at the world because the world wasn’t good to her,” Jennifer Higgins said. “She struggled with questions about why she was born.

“Now she’s looking to the future and planning a career,” her mother said. “Now she’s looking forward to the future.”

Surgery still looms in Victoria’s future. But that’s a good thing now. Due to her hard work in the gym, Tori has earned her shot at a successful heart-repair surgery.

“The only thing that can hold Tori back is Tori,” Moreau said. “I see a very bright future for her — she’s a great kid.”

Moreau said the girl should have a full and normal life after doctors install the heart valve.

Though Tori is just a freshman at Grand Haven High School, she’s already making career plans. She wants to work with horses — the animals have been steady companions throughout her ordeal.

“As long as the job pays good money and involves horses, I don’t care what it is,” she said.

Written by Adam Pick
- Patient & Website Founder

Adam Pick, Heart Valve Patient Advocate

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Mandy says on January 9th, 2009 at 6:23 pm


I am a heart valve recipient. I thought I would offer my name and e-mail in case this family would want to contact me. I live less than a 1/2 hour away from Grand Haven. I had valve replacement and repair on 9-16-08. It has been less than 4 months and I feel incredible. I just completed my first Spin class since before surgery and boy can I tell the difference. It is fine if they do not wish to contact me I just thought it might help to know their is someone very close to home who went through what Tori will soon go through. I also grew up with a congenital heart defect and know some of the thoughts that go along with that for a young girl!! I am here to tell you life is a miracle and a gift!!

Thanks for all the encouraging stories…Good luck with your miracle on the way

Mandy Tuttle

Charlene Melcher says on January 13th, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Way to go Tori…you are an inspiration to all kids who face life threatening health problems.

mercy turan says on January 13th, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Good for your Tori (I love your complete name, Victoria, it is so elegant!).
I wish you the best, looking forward to your heart surgery, your workouts and to a bright future. I live in Ocala, Florida (we like to say we are the Horse Capital of the World, though I don’t know if that is a bit of an exaggeration!), but we sure are proud to be in the backyard (and practically in “the Swamp”) of the University of Florida Gators, now again National Champions! The university has a great veterinary school, and, of course, one of its major interests is horses. Ever gave it a thought to becoming a Gator??

Our son, John, had double valve surgery in March 2008, at the University of Florida’s Shand’s Hospital. He is doing great. We will be rooting for you, keep us posted on Adam’s Blog.

Joe Barlow Sr says on January 20th, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Hi my name is joe barlow, not related to barlow’s valve disorder. But unfortunately I was told just before christmas that I needed my aortic valve replaced 1st they told me that i only have 2 flappers in my valve and i should have 3. But they say this is not uncommon . The thing that concern’s me is at 68 years old will it make that much of a change in the quality of my life.I have diabetes thyroid problems and shortness of breath cant walk on a tread mill for more than 4 min. I here that blood clots are a big concern with valve operation’s .The doctors say I can go with out sugary as long as 6 months.I don’t want to die, Is there another way for this to be taken care of,with out open heart sugary. thank you.

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