As Michael Valero wrapped up the remodel of an x-ray room at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, he took a moment to reflect on how far he’s come – without venturing far geographically. Forty years ago, at the same hospital, he was a little boy undergoing tests and treatments for life-threatening heart and lung issues. Now, he is a UC San Francisco construction project manager leading campus upgrade and expansion efforts and making it possible for future generations of young patients to receive state-of-the-art care like he had.

When Michael was 2 years old, he was trailing behind his father as they made a delivery for his printing business in the East Bay. Next thing his father knew, Michael was lying on the parking lot pavement barely able to breathe. He was rushed to a nearby hospital in Castro Valley, which stabilized him and transferred him to UCSF Benioff Oakland.

Over the next six months, Michael was in and out of the hospital suffering from five cases of pneumonia as doctors tried to diagnose the cause of his breathing issues. The lead cardiologist pieced together that Michael’s pulmonary problems stemmed from a congenital heart defect – he had three holes in his heart, a leaky valve and one chamber that was not fully connected. His heart had enlarged to compensate for these abnormalities and it wasn’t properly oxygenating his blood.

Within weeks of the diagnosis, Michael had open heart surgery to repair his heart and remove a piece of his lung for biopsy. Because of the high risk of post-surgery infection, he spent three months living in a crib enclosed in a bubble. These became his earliest memories.

“I vividly remember there were murals painted on the ceilings of the operating rooms, and mine that day was a circus theme. It felt very peaceful, and it alleviated all the fear I had,” Michael said. “In the bubble crib, I would press myself against the plastic and get hugs through rubber arms like in a lab in the movies. My parents were always there and so supportive.”

Visits with Robin Williams, Mark Hamill, Whoopi Goldberg

Until he was about 12 years old, Michael returned frequently to UCSF Benioff Oakland for care, often staying for long periods. He missed so much school, he repeated the first grade. His parents were constantly by his side while also caring for his three older siblings at their home a half hour away in Livermore, California.

Michael became close with his cardiologist, Stanley Higashino, MD, and is “eternally grateful to all the doctors, nurses and staff that made a huge difference in my life and made Childrenʼs Hospital such a positive experience.”

“I was there for months at a time and many holidays. Children’s was a really special place. Sports stars would visit, and I remember Robin Williams coming several times, and Mark Hamill and Whoopi Goldberg – it really meant a lot to us kids,” he said.

Michael was such a regular at the hospital that he was featured in the Bambino, a quarterly newsletter featuring news about patients, physicians and happenings at the hospital. He still has a copy of the Bambino issue from 1983 that shows him testing his lung capacity alongside his pulmonologist, Herman Lipow, MD. “I remember when they took that photo. I felt a sense of pride to have gone through what I did and come out the other side as an example of success,” Michael said.

A copy of Bambino magazine, featuring three-year-old Michael Valero on the cover. It is placed on top of blueprints for the new MRI facility under construction at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
Blueprints of the new MRI lab under construction at UCSF Benioff Oakland frame a 1983 edition of the hospital’s Bambino newsletter that featured 3-year-old Michael Valero.
A page of the 1982 edition of Bambino Baby magazine, featuring a greyscale photo of three-year-old Michael Valero with his pediatrician Herman Lipow, MD.
On page 23 of the Bambino, Michael is shown with his pediatrician Herman Lipow, MD. The caption reads: Michael Valero, 3 1/2, of Livermore, with Dr. Herman Lipow in Pulmonary Clinic. Michael has asthma and congenital heart lesion. Wright Peak Flow Measurement is used to measure volume of air during one breath.

As Michael became a teenager, his heart grew and the strain on it diminished, and his health dramatically improved. In high school, he did all the things he’d wanted to do before – like joining the photography club and band. He was even a starting player on the football team that went to two championship games.

“I learned early on how resilient children are, and how they will rise to any occasion and meet the challenges you set for them. My parents and doctors always challenged me and pushed the envelope, and it really helped me in life,” said Michael.

A hospital for the future

Michael started his career in medical construction in 2005 and joined UCSF in 2021 as a project manager for the design and construction department. He just completed the new corridor to the cafeteria on the 2nd floor to allow for access during the new hospital build and has worked on multiple imaging lab projects and is currently installing a new MRI scanner.

“When I was given the opportunity to come back to work at the place that is literally responsible for me being alive and saving my life, I jumped on it. It’s a huge chance for me to give back,” he said.

Michael is proud to help improve the hospital facilities so other children can have the same chances he did at a healthier life. And his unique perspective on hospital construction makes him even more effective, he said.

“I know what it’s like for the patients and families in our hospital. During construction, we know we make a lot of noise, interrupt workflows for staff and sometimes inconvenience the families,” he explained. “But with my background, having spent so much time here as a kid, I’m helping us minimize the disruption our construction causes and mitigate our impact as much as possible.”

Michael Valero smiles as he walks in front of the colorful facade of the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Outpatient Center.

“I come to work with a significant sense of purpose every day.”

Michael Valero, UCSF construction project manager