Jean Tozer, Heart Valve Replacement Patient

About two years ago, doctors told Jean Tozer she probably had fewer than six weeks to live.

One of her heart valves was so clogged with calcium that even when wide open it was no bigger than a pinhole. Her 80-year-old heart was slowly giving out from working so hard pumping blood through the tiny opening.

Pay a visit to Jean Tozer at her Burr Oak home these days, however, and she'll haul out a photo of herself and daughter Dawn Tozer riding a parasail in Florida last November.

"It was fun," said Jean now 83, of parasailing 600 feet above the beach near St. Petersburg. "I was waving and Dawn was hanging on for dear life. It was my first time parasailing. We paid extra so we could go higher."

What brought about this dramatic turn of events was the decision by a Kalamazoo cardiac surgeon to operate on Jean despite her failing condition. Dr. M. Michael Khaghany of Cardio Thoracic Surgery in Kalamazoo replaced her calcified heart valve with one from a pig on Jan. 18, 2005, at Borgess Medical Center.

Nine days later Tozer was back home with husband Don and under the watchful eye of Dawn, who took time off from her job in Washington state.

"The shining star in this whole picture was Dr. Khaghany," said Dawn from her home in Washington. "Meeting him, I felt his confidence, observed his compassion and humility and knew I was in the prescence of a great man."

Two other doctors had told Jean they wouldn't do the surgery because the risk was too high. Dr. Khaghany, however, told them: "I can do this. I'll do my part and you do your part."

Jean's journey to the operating room at Borgess started a few years earlier when the busy and active septuagenarian was increasingly bothered with shortness of breath. "Don told me that when I was sleeping I would breathe like this," she said, demonstrating with very short, shallow breaths.

A former World War II Marine, Jean had sought medical care through the Veterans Administration medical center in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

But as her condition worsened, she got an appointment with a Sturgis physician who said she needed to go to the hospital, and quickly.

Examinations by physicians at Borgess uncovered the calcified heart valve and the short life expectancy.

"When I was told about the condition, I went along with anything they said," Jean said. "They know what they are doing. I put myself in their hands and in the hands of God."

Her whole family was present at the time of the operation and Jean recalls that there "wasn't a dry eye in the place." As she was wheeled into the OR her son Keith called out: "Once a Marine, always a Marine!"

Dawn said the moment her mother was headed for the OR was "very powerful -- the power of prayer, of being together as a family, the power of belief. We were confident that she would come out OK."

Once Jean was home, Borgess nurses traveled to Burr Oak regularly to keep tabs on her improving condition. "They are very good," Jean said.

Born March 11, 1923, in Detroit, Jean Tozer arrived minutes ahead of her unexpected twin sister June. The young twins grew up in Sturgis and in 1943 both enlisted in the Marines -- the first female twins in the U.S. Marine Corps, according to Dawn.

Jean showed an aptitude for mechanics and was quickly enrolled in a 21-week aviation mechanics school. June was sent to work in a gift shop at a California Marine base. "Dad wrote a letter to our Senator saying he wanted the twins together," Jean said. The next thing Jean knew June had joined her.

Later, Jean worked as a mechanic, the only female Marine on crews that reconditioned F4-U4 Corsair fighter plane engines. June worked with crews that inspected the repairs.

"We were paid $21 a month," Jean said.

Both women left the Marines soon after the war ended in 1945.

"June was discharged as a staff sergeant but I was only a corporal," Jean said. "Since I was the only woman mechanic, it was more likely that the men would be promoted."

In 1941, Jean had become engaged to Don Tozer, her sweetheart since the 6th grade, and the two were married Aug. 4, 1945. Don Tozer had served in the Philippines during the war and Jean, still in the Marines, had made it to the wedding in Sturgis in part by hitchhiking.

In March of this year, Jean told her twin that she was coming to June's home in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, to celebrate their 83rd birthday.

"When June asked how I was going to get there, I told her I still have my thumb," Jean said, smiling.

The Tozers have two other children besides Dawn and Keith. Connie Couch lives in Sturgis and Robin Everitt in Burr Oak. Another daughter, Jerry Lynn, was born with cerebral palsy and died at age 5.

The twins may live apart but the same feistiness and spirit of adventure that prompted them to join the Marines -- and for Jean to parasail at age 82 -- remains.

"When I called June one time I asked her if she watches 'Fear Factor' on TV," Jean said.

That's the show where contestants do all sort of difficult physical challenges.

"I told June that we would do all that stuff -- except eat some of those things. I don't think I'd eat a cockroach."

Jean, reflecting on the operation that saved her life, had only praise for Dr. Khaghany and the medical professionals at Borgess. "They sure have great employees," she said of the hospital.

"They just helped us so much. And I followed their rules."

Both Jean and Dawn also had praise for the staff at the downtown Hospital Hospitality House where they stayed while Jean was in Borgess. "It's such a blessing," Dawn said. "We cannot say enough about them and the ability to have such a facility when you need it."

Today Jean Tozer is as busy as ever.

"Now I do everything. I don't do what you call exercise with exercise equipment. But I volunteer at kindergarten in Burr Oak on Mondays. I volunteer in the gift shop in the Sturgis hospital a couple times a month, and I run the rummage sale at First United Methodist Church in Sturgis.

"I still drive. I'm not fast -- I just go the speed limit."

Dawn said that her mother "has lots of drive. She has slept only four hours a night as far back as I can remember. She cuts ladies' hair and reads to blind people. She has always been that little angel that helps all those people."