Marilyn Rolph has long had a strong sense of self. She knows her own mind.

For example, when the time came to leave northern Michigan with her husband and move closer to family in Holland, she knew it. When they saw a condo there that fit their needs perfectly, she had no doubt.

True to form, Rolph, 83, approached a medical crisis last fall with focus and resolve.

The retired real estate agent first had trouble catching her breath in November. The feeling came out of the blue. When her health quickly deteriorated, she went to a local hospital for testing.

A cardiac catheterization revealed advanced heart failure, caused by severe coronary artery disease and a severely restricted aortic valve.

“When the results came back, I was stunned,” Rolph said. “I didn’t have any signs of anything. … And then all of a sudden this shortness of breath.”

For someone her age with her medical complexities, surgery wasn’t an option, her doctors told her. The risks were too high.

They counseled Rolph and her family to look into hospice care.

“They were giving me six months to live,” she said.

She let the news sink in for a few days, but her mind wouldn’t settle. She couldn’t find peace with the idea.

“After I got calmed down a little bit, I thought, ‘No, that’s not an option for me. I’m not going that way. … I just couldn’t buy it,’” Rolph said. “I didn’t feel like dying. I mean, the thought of it was ridiculous to me.”


Rolph turned to her iPad and researched other treatment possibilities. She decided to seek a second opinion at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

Evaluating her case, Theodore Boeve, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon who directs the Spectrum Health Richard and Helen DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program, confirmed surgery could be precarious for her.

Dr. Boeve asked his colleagues in the structural heart and valve program to assess whether Rolph would be a good candidate for stenting of her three blocked arteries and for the TAVR procedure, a less-invasive treatment for aortic stenosis.

They evaluated her situation and judged that if Rolph could persevere through a demanding recovery, she would experience better results—better blood flow—with open surgery than with the less-invasive procedure.

Rolph and her son Tim returned for a second consultation with Dr. Boeve. By this time, she had made up her mind.

She wanted to have a valve replacement and triple bypass surgery, despite the risks.

“I told Dr. Boeve that I felt within my own spirit that I had some good years left in me and I’m going to be well, and I’m going to do the things I used to do. And I was determined to do it,” she said.

“Maybe that determination meant a whole lot more than I thought it did.”

From Dr. Boeve’s perspective, her attitude and drive tipped the scale.

“The most important thing for anybody at her age that’s going to have cardiac surgery is that they are absolutely determined to recover. Because without that, they won’t,” he said. “She had it.”

Seeing her motivation and fortitude—and her children’s commitment to support her through the recovery process—Dr. Boeve agreed to go ahead with the surgery.

“Once she made up her mind, that helped me make up my mind,” he said.

His words packed a punch for Rolph.

“I’ll never forget it when he said to me, ‘I have every confidence that you can come through this,’” Rolph said, choking up.

“After he said that, I said, ‘Doctor, I’m going to put your hands in God’s hands and we’re going to do all right.’”

Surgery and recovery

Rolph’s surgery, which took place in mid-December, went beautifully. Dr. Boeve did his part. Now it was the patient’s turn.

Rolph held up her end of the bargain with characteristic grit, staying positive and doing everything the medical team asked of her during her hospital stay.

When the new year dawned, she went to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. She engaged in daily physical and occupational therapy sessions, building her strength, endurance and balance.

By the time she went home two weeks later, Rolph had exceeded all of her therapists’ goals.

“It was very clear she wanted to recover—she wanted to do the hard work to get her strength back and enjoy life,” Dr. Boeve said.

Enjoying life is exactly what Rolph has in mind. Even before her surgery, she had visions of getting back in her garden.

“I could picture myself outside in my flowers and going to the nurseries to pick out new flowers for the spring and the summer. That’s what I’m all about,” she said.

“I’m happy because I see a future out there for me,” she said. “I’m so grateful.”