But in 2015, newly married and weighing 217 pounds, she underwent testing to be approved to have a child despite her heart woes, and she faced a reckoning: her over-eating and lack of movement would make conceiving very difficult.
With only half of her heart functioning, Cristi Walker has to struggle more than most to keep up a normal, healthy life.
The 30-year-old has undergone four open heart surgeries, two procedures to rearrange her heart valves, a pacemaker insertion, and a pulmonary valve replacement since she was diagnosed with a rare condition at birth.
It means Cristi, a program specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in California, has spent a lifetime in and out of recovery, urged not to exert herself and to protect her chest scars.
That, she says, led to a vicious cycle, of seclusion and weight gain – that in turn strained her heart even more.
Devastated, she started Weight Watchers, and walking 30 minutes every lunch break, gradually warming up to more intense exercises.
Now, she is 60 pounds lighter, her heart is 30 percent more efficient – and she says her life has changed.
Cristi Walker, a program specialist in San Diego, has spent a lifetime in and out of recovery, urged not to exert herself and to protect her chest scars. Pictured: in 2015 (left), and now
Cristi, pictured recently with her husband, says many people don’t recognize her now
When Cristi married in 2015, she wanted to start a family but doctors warned she was in dangerous shape and should never conceive
WHAT IS PULMONARY ATRESIA?
Pulmonary atresia is a condition where blood cannot flow between the right pumping chamber (right ventricle) into the lungs to pick up oxygen.
Often, this is because the large blood vessel that carries blood to the lungs (the pulmonary artery) hasn’t developed properly, and the right ventricle is smaller than usual.
The valve linking the right ventricle and the right filling chamber (atria) may also be narrowed or closed.
Pulmonary atresia is a form of congenital heart disease – a term used to describe a problem with the heart’s structure and function due to abnormal development before birth.
These have a range of symptoms, which include:
- Excessive sweating
- Extreme tiredness and fatigue
- Poor feeding
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- A blue tinge to the skin (cyanosis)
‘I was always treated very fragile as a child into adulthood,’ Cristi says.
‘This led to a pretty sedentary lifestyle. I loved food and consumed a lot of it but I didn’t output the energy, so it led to me packing on the weight and blaming my heart condition.
‘I felt self-conscious constantly. I would avoid events because I hated the way that I looked. Clothing options were already hard hiding my scar and then also being overweight made things near impossible.
‘I never took full body photos, I just felt trapped inside of my body and I had no idea what life I was missing out on.’
Cristi was just three days old when she had to have her first open heart surgery.
She was born with a congenital heart defect called pulmonary atresia with intact ventricular septum (PAIVS), a form of heart disease in which the pulmonary valve doesn’t function properly.
As a child, beyond another three open heart surgeries, she had two modified Fontan procedures, which is performed on pediatric patients who possess only a single functional ventricle due to a lack of a heart valve or an abnormality of the pumping ability of the heart.
She also had a pacemaker inserted and most recently, a pulmonary valve replacement.
The operations resulted in her developing a keloid scar across her chest, a formation of a type of scar composed of collagen. Due to her scarring, she became insecure with her looks and did whatever she could to cover herself up to hide it.
She was told later in her adulthood that she couldn’t run by her cardiologist and this led her to live an inactive life. Her weight steadily swelled to around 220lbs, making her a size 24.
It wasn’t until she got married in 2015 that she decided to get fit to have a higher chance of getting pregnant, and that was the year she was given the seal of approval by her doctor that she could have a child.
However, her optimistic outlook was dashed when she began having other serious health problems.
‘Essentially, I was only born with half of my heart,’ Cristi said.
‘This meant as soon as three days old, I had to get open heart surgery to attempt to repair this. There is no fix or what I have but they have been able to do to give me as normal a life as possible.
‘Since then, my keloid has always grown. I hid my keloid, never showed it, and avoided any activity that would show it.
‘After all my surgeries, I was left with keloid scarring on my chest that I was ashamed of and hid for most of my life. Growing up I lived in a constant state of bitterness and felt that the world owed me.
As a child, beyond another three open heart surgeries, she had two modified Fontan procedures, which is performed on pediatric patients who possess only a single functional ventricle due to a lack of a heart valve or an abnormality of the pumping ability of the heart
Due to her scarring, she became insecure with her looks and did whatever she could to cover herself up to hide it. Her weight steadily swelled to around 220lbs, making her a size 24
She now says that losing the weight has vastly improved her heart function by over 30 percent and improved her chances of advancing in her career due to her increase in confidence
Cristi started treatment to remove her scars in December 2012 and has since received monthly maintenance for around 18 months and stopped undergoing treatments since June 2015
‘Once my keloid started to get better, I felt an overall desire to feel better about myself in every aspect.
‘Growing up, I was told that I could not work out. I was told I couldn’t run for as long as I can remember by my cardiologist.
Cristi started treatment to remove her scars in December 2012 and has since received monthly maintenance for around 18 months and stopped undergoing treatments since June 2015.
She recalls the moment she decided to overhaul her diet to lose weight and that it was due to her desire to have a child with her husband of three years.
‘Initially, I wanted to lose weight because I had gotten married and there was a possibility that If I were healthy enough, I could have kids,’ Cristi said.
‘I knew my body was in no condition to properly carry a child, so I decided to do everything in my power to make it the best it could be to better my chances of my cardiologist approving me to have kids.
‘After vigorous testing, I was approved in 2015 to have one child but that quickly changed when some other problems with my heart were found and now doctors recommend that I never be pregnant.’
With Weight Watchers, Cristi felt that she didn’t have to work out to lose weight with them, but since she got the thumbs up from her doctor, she began hiking regularly
Those close to Cristi knew the pain physically and emotionally that it caused her
While she has been told by doctors that she is unable to get pregnant due to her health, she says that the weight loss has helped her in other ways considerably.
She now says that losing the weight has vastly improved her heart function by over 30 percent and improved her chances of advancing in her career due to her increase in confidence.
‘Losing weight has completely changed my life. Not only do I feel better about myself and feel more confident, but I have tried things I would have never tried,’ Cristi said.
‘I have met people and been in circumstance that I would have missed out on. I have advanced in my career due to my added confidence.
‘It has literally affected every single aspect of my life. Not to mention, my heart function has improved by over thirty percent since losing seventy pounds.
‘I finally feel like I can be myself and I don’t have to hide behind a ‘overweight funny girl’ exterior. The hardest thing was avoiding the temptation of binge eating.
‘I definitely had trouble with that. It was also tough when my weight would stall, and I would stop losing.
‘Eventually I realized that I was actually eating too few calories and I switched to a plan that helped me eat more and still lose weight.’
With Weight Watchers, Cristi felt that she didn’t have to work out to lose weight with them, but since she got the thumbs up from her doctor, she began hiking regularly.
‘I initially started losing weight with Weight Watchers because I loathed exercise and did not want to do it. I knew with WW that I didn’t have to work out so I took that route,’ she said.
‘Then, after my doctor’s recommendation, I started walking. I would walk for thirty minutes during my lunch break at work and I loved it.
‘Walking led to more walking which led to a gym membership which led to circuit training and now lifting weights.
‘People have definitely been shocked. Some don’t recognize me! Mainly people are happy for me. People are more surprised and emotional seeing that I show my scar more than anything.
‘Anyone close to me knew the absolute heartache and pain physically and emotionally that it caused me and it really is an emotional experience for them to see me so happy with it now.’