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.
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.
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.