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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Emily Leyva, Garces swimmer and graduate.

Emily Leyva, a recent graduate of Garces Memorial High School, wore the same white robe, white square hat and gold tassel the 128 other graduates sported during their commencement celebration Wednesday at the Rabobank Theater and Convention Center.

She blended in, but she was different from her peers.

Leyva was diagnosed at birth in 1996 with a rare heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot that occurs in about 1 out of every 2,000 births. For Leyva, it meant a heart murmer and a hole between the septum separating the two lower chambers of her heart. She had her first surgery at 11 months old.

Fourteen years later, Leyva and her family found out it wouldn't be her last.

Her mother, Marcela Garcia, said she took her daughter in once a year for follow-up appointments, per the doctor's instruction.

"The doctor she was seeing had told me she was a complete repair and wouldn't have to have anything done," she said.

It wasn't until she switched doctors in February 2011that Garcia found out her daughter might need surgery.

"I was devastated," Garcia said. "I pretty much felt betrayed."

Within a few weeks, a new cardiologist had her echocardiogram and other test results transferred to UCLA for a second opinion. A minor surgery in June 2011 confirmed the right side of Leyva's heart was enlarged.

She needed surgery "immediately," Garcia said.

Leyva couldn't believe what was happening, thought she'd begun to notice she easily grew tired during exercising.

"For some reason I thought they were just kidding," she said. "I was like: 'No, this can't be happening. It must be a joke.'"

It wasn't.

Leyva, 15 at the time, had pulmonary valve replacement surgery during the spring break of her sophomore year in April 2012. The surgery was a success, and she returned home after a three-day stay in the hospital.

Although the recovery lasted about two months, she only missed a week of school.

Wednesday, her mother and about two dozen other relatives were able to watch her walk across the convention center stage with her classmates. She had earned a 4.26 GPA and graduated in the top 15 percent of her class.

"She's just a really good kid," Garcia said.

Leyva said her experiences in and out of hospitals ultimately helped her select a career path. She plans to study biology at the University of San Diego and become a nurse practitioner in pediatric cardiology.