Jill Bene, president of Mended Hearts San Diego and Assistant Regional Director of the Western Region, was stunned by her first encounter with the organization. “I was blown away that some complete stranger would come to visit me and be concerned about how I was doing and feeling,” she says.
These days, she pays that kindness forward every Friday by visiting patients at the same hospital where she had her surgery, an aortic heart valve replacement and pacemaker procedure, in 2006. She joined Mended Hearts Chapter 62 just four months after leaving the hospital and served two years as secretary, two as treasurer, and one as vice president before becoming president in August 2013.
Bene’s heart health concerns began many years before her surgery, when a doctor informed her that she had a heart murmur. She was later diagnosed with mild to moderate aortic stenosis and told by a cardiologist that she could need surgery within the next 20 years or so. “It was a shock, but I put it to the back of my mind and carried on, checking in with the cardiologist every year,” she says.
About six years later, during a vacation in New Zealand, she began to have shortness of breath that was “manageable,” but a bit worrying. Soon after returning to the U.S., she got bronchitis and found herself unable to breathe without sitting up in bed. “Valves do not like bronchitis,” she says.
Surgery was scheduled to replace her aortic valve with a cow’s valve and to place a pacemaker, but first, she wanted to talk with someone who had been through a similar surgery. She asked her cardiologist to put her in touch with a mentor, and he did: a man 15 to 20 years her junior who had successfully had two valves replaced. She never met that mentor in person, but says their phone calls did a lot to ease her mind: “I was still apprehensive, but it took a lot of fear away when he walked me through what to expect. That was really valuable.”
Like that influential mentor, Jill did all of her Mended Hearts visits via telephone during the years when she was busy working as an office manager for a manufacturing company. Last July, she retired at the age of 71 and began doing in-person visits for the first time. She says, “After I retired and became a hospital visitor, I learned it’s the core of what we do. I concentrated on learning more about that area, and I love it! It’s so gratifying.”
She says she finds that although people are surprised to be facing heart problems, she is quick to remind them that, “they’re there because they went to get a check-up and found out that they have a problem that they are able to get fixed. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t gone to see their doctor?”
Bene was born in England, moved to Australia (which she claims as her home country) at the age of 9, and got married in Gibraltar in 1972 before settling down in the U.S. Today, she lives in the San Diego area with her two fuzzy “children,” two cats named Spice and Radar.