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Advocate Spotlight: Ariel Walker

by Mark F. on Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ariel Walker Ohio

At 19, my life was totally normal for a college student.  Eat, sleep, class, repeat.  And then one day, my heart quit beating.  I was giving a final presentation in front of a class full of people when everything went dark.  When I woke up, I was on the floor with a paramedic looking at me.

It took almost 4 years to diagnose what had caused me to pass out.  I was lucky.  I had a mother who had worked in a hospital for 25 years, and a supportive partner who drove me four hours each direction every couple of weeks for tests.  For such a dramatic event, it was extremely difficult to convince doctors that anything was wrong with me.  I passed every test.  Most appointments ended with the explanation that I was probably passing out because I was thin and therefore probably not eating enough. 

However, with my mom’s stubbornness and understanding of the heath care system, I was able to get an appointment with a cardiologist who was willing to send me for a tilt-table test.  I laid strapped flat to a table for an hour and then they flipped me vertically to see what would happen.   As everyone waited to see if I would pass out, the surgeon suggested that if I switched my snacks to salted peanuts and Gatorade, I would probably be fine.  I don’t remember much after that because I did pass out, and my heart stopped beating. 

I had cardio-inhibitory vasovagal syncope and I would need a pacemaker to keep me from passing out in the future.  A million things raced through my mind, the first of which was relief… I finally had a diagnosis.  The second was, would I ever look good in a bikini with a pacemaker implanted in my chest.  A month later, I was in surgery: the only 24 year-old on the cardiology schedule. 

My surgery was not easy.  It was supposed to be less than 24 hours in the hospital and I ended up there for three days.  My body was going into shock every time the pacemaker tried to pace my heart.  I was sent for x-rays in a wheelchair and brought back in a gurney because I kept losing consciousness.  It was terrifying.  Not for me so much, I was just exhausted. But for my family who had to watch helplessly, it was a nightmare. 

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what is impossible to explain to someone who has never been in such a situation, is that I not only became aware of a problem that day, I also lost the ability to trust that my heart would ever beat the way it was supposed to.  We don’t think about our lungs allowing us to breathe or our heart pumping our blood. It just happens.  I can’t explain the sense of loss, or the fear that develops of your own body, but I can encourage people not to take it for granted. 

I am now on my second pacemaker and, although that surgery wasn’t easy either, I live a healthy and active life with my amazing husband and two dogs.  To give back, I also joined the Board of Directors for my local American Heart Association so that I can encourage others to live well and take care of their hearts.  A coronary event can happen to anyone, at any stage of life.  It is important to pay attention to what your body is telling you and seek a doctor’s care whenever your heath circumstances change.  Treat your heart with care and never take it for granted.

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Comments (4)

  • Ariel,

    Your story is both interesting and insightful to me. I too was diagnosed with a "heart issue" at the young age of 14 but fortunately I did not become symptomatic until much later in adulthood. Kudos to your mom for persisting with the health care system to finally determine the condition that was causing your heart events. I respect your strength and determination to deal with the discomfort of the surgeries and your climb back to a healthy and active life. I had my aortic valve replaced at the Cleveland Clinic in your home state of Ohio and I too am thrilled to be able to "give back" as a new AHA Heart Valve Ambassador. All the best to you and your family as you continue on your journey of a full and active life and a beautifully healthy heart.

    Very Best Regards,

    Mark Ridder

    — Mark R.

  • Thank you for sharing your story and your advocacy, I had my aortic valve removed 05/07/2013, due a bacteria infection, I now have a mechanical aortic valve.

    — Nathan T.

  • I had a VSD repaired, 2 stints put in, and i also live a happy active life with my husband and son!! If you and your family  know your limits we can accomplish a lot in life. Thank you for sharing you story, it inspires me to set more goals. OH!! I hated my heart surgery but glad it was done, my scar reminds me that i wouldn't be here without it. I <3 my scar!!

    — Alison B.

  • Your story is very touching.  My daughter also has a heart defect and, like you, she has a full and active life.  We are grateful for the advances in medicine.

    I wish you the very best.

    Denise Pippen

    — Denise P.

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