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Woman thrives with 3 hearts: ‘Every single second is valuable’

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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- From the mundane to milestones Jeni Simonitis savors everything life affords -- from its ups to its downs. Your perspective can change, you see, when you barely survive childhood.

"When I started passing out in the playground, that is when I realized something was really wrong," Jeni said.

Growing up, the Henrico woman faced an unknown and relentless foe.

Her defective heart was failing.

"It was hard to diagnose because it was so rare and weird," she said.

She needed a transplant at the age of eight.

In 1992, Jeni's life was spared.

She has never forgotten the sacrifice of the unknown donor.

"It got to a point that it was the heart or nothing," Jeni said. "I think about them all of the time. It means more than anything.”

The warrior would grow up.

She would graduate from Matoaca High School and later VCU.

She would start a career and say "I Do" to the love of her life.

“None of that would happened. I would haven’t seen any of it. So it made a lasting 25-year impact on my life," Jeni said.

But three years ago, Jeni's life took a turn. Her transplanted heart began deteriorating.

"At that point it is another waiting game. You know it could take years," she said.

Jeni would need a second heart transplant. A rarity in the medical field.

“My understanding is that only three percent of original transplants get another chance," Jeni said.

Early on December 28, Jeni's phone rang.

A donated heart was waiting at VCU Medical Center.

Nurse practitioner Maureen Flattery delivered the good news.

"It's what we do this for. It's great. It's great," Maureen said.

Before her transplant though, Jeni had unfinished business at work.

"It was Christmas. We were on skeleton crew at work. I had payroll. I said we can’t do this today. I have to go to work," Jeni said.

"The morning of her transplant she asked if she could go into work to finish up a few things," Flattery recalled. "I said ‘No.'"

That night Jeni would undergo another transplant. By her side was her favorite stuffed animal, Stripes.

The same stuffed animal accompanied her in 1992.

Jeni Simonitis in 1992 and 2017.

“He is my little Siberian tiger. He is well loved. Well loved," Jeni said. "He was one of the first things I packed. He needed to be packed. He needed to be there.”

Jeni's surgeon Dr. Tang called Jeni is an inspiration.

“At every step of the way it was pretty uncommon," Dr. Tang said. “She is a remarkable woman.”

After spending two weeks in the hospital following her transplant, Jeni arrived in her Glen Allen home a few weeks ago to recover. Her future looks bright.

“I feel that it is better than the lottery because I’m paid with life and not money," she said. "I’ve been able to see so many things that I may not have been able to. Every single second is valuable."

The generosity of strangers  saved her life. When it comes to gratitude Jeni Simonitis doesn't miss a beat.

“So essentially to have three hearts in one lifetime is hard to think about. It is hard to think about," Jeni said.

On Valentine's Day night Jeni and her husband were guests of VCU to watch the Rams basketball game.

Jeni was honored at half-court before the game.

Watch CBS 6 News at 6 p.m. Thursdays for Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" features. If you know of someone CBS 6 should should feature, email heroes@wtvr.com. Click here to view more "Heroes Among Us" reports.

Watch CBS 6 News at 6 p.m. Thursdays for Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" reports. If you know of someone CBS 6 should should feature, email heroes@wtvr.com

Watch CBS 6 News at 6 p.m. Thursdays for Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" reports. If you know of someone CBS 6 should should feature, email heroes@wtvr.com