Local woman faces third open-heart surgery
Mark Collier / Staff Photo Elisabeth Walker, who graduated from Spaulding and lives in Montpelier, pauses while greeting well-wishers who stopped by her parents' South Barre home Saturday to show support for her. She is scheduled for her third open-heart surgery today at Boston Children's Hospital.
BARRE TOWN — A 22-year-old Barre native who survived the medical equivalent of a “Hail Mary” when she was only 6 is scheduled to return first thing this morning to Boston Children’s Hospital, where doctors will try to fix her breaking heart — again — and preserve her opportunity to bear children.
Elisabeth Walker wants to have children, and, depending on what surgeons find when they crack open her chest for the third time in her young life, the girl who defied all odds on her way to becoming a woman may yet have that chance.
Walker’s parents, Randy and Sue, would surely settle for less.
So would Walker’s boyfriend, Justin Rouleau, and the army of family and friends who dropped by her parents’ South Barre home Saturday to see them all off.
Heck, so would Walker, whose concern over a biological clock that has barely started to tick finishes a distant second behind her desire to return to the near-normal life she has led since undergoing an experimental operation in 1996.
This isn’t a tonsillectomy; it’s open-heart surgery. And, while it isn’t quite an emergency, Randy Walker will nervously tell you it isn’t optional either.
“Lizzie’s got a complicated heart,” the local granite manufacturer said Friday, even as his daughter was in Boston with her mom undergoing a battery of last-minute tests and meeting with the surgeon who is scheduled to have her life in his hands before the noon hour is over today.
“Complicated” is probably an understatement when it comes to Walker’s enlarged heart — the one with the leaking valves and the five experimental “clamshell” devices that were used to plug the tiny holes that once spewed blood into her infant lungs.
She was born with multiple ventricular septal defects, a tongue-twisting condition that required her first open-heart surgery when she was only 4 months old. A long-term fix wasn’t an option then, because she was too tiny and the risk was too great. Instead, surgeons settled for placing a steel band around her pulmonary artery in hopes it would hold until she put on a couple of pounds and gained a little strength.
It held until she was 6.
In retrospect, Randy Walker said that is nothing short of a miracle, and not just because doctors pegged his infant daughter’s chances of survival at a soul-sapping 30 percent.
“It bought her time,” he said.
While little Lizzie was working her way from diapers to first grade at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital were trying to perfect the “clamshell” devices that eventually saved her life.
Though the surgical procedure hadn’t yet been sanctioned, Walker’s parents signed away their rights to sue the hospital and entered her in a case study that included her second major surgery. This one did not go off without a hitch. Before it was over, the 6-year-old’s lungs collapsed, she “coded,” was revived and spent 11 days in a drug-induced coma.
“It was awful,” Randy Walker recalled. “It was the worst time of our lives.”
Though he said Boston Children’s Hospital is filled with bad memories, he’s not complaining about the end result.
“We’ve got a daughter,” he said, puffing up with pride when talking about the girl he described as his “5-foot-tall fireball.”
“She’s always led a compromised life,” he said, quickly adding you’d have to be paying attention to actually notice.
Walker was the kid sitting on the side of the pool while her older brother, Matthew, and their friends splashed around; the one who didn’t put up a fuss when bedtime rolled around because she was just plain beat.
Walker was that girl, according to her dad — “a classic cardiac kid” who just happens to be a “huge success story” when it comes to that 16-year-old case study.
Walker and Rouleau, both Spaulding High School graduates, have their own place in Montpelier, and until recently she was working two jobs — one as a licensed nurse assistant at Woodridge Nursing Home in Berlin and the other as a waitress at Mulligan’s Irish Pub in Barre.
According to Randy Walker, his daughter had to temporarily give up her gig as a waitress because she was starting to tire more than usual, a signal that her complicated heart needed some attention.
It wasn’t something the family didn’t see coming, according to Randy Walker, who has schooled himself on matters of the heart with the help of the Internet and has a wife who makes her living as a nurse.
“We were fully prepared there were going to be more surgeries down the road,” he said. “We actually expected to be back a long time before now.”
However, while annual checkups showed some deterioration in her heart condition over the past few years, it only recently entered the danger zone — triggering the need for a surgery to deal with three leaking valves.
That surgery is scheduled for today, though Randy Walker said there isn’t a definitive game plan.
“They won’t know what they’re going to do until they open her up,” he said, explaining his daughter is hoping this surgery will buy her time to have children.
If the surgical team is able to repair the valves, the fix could last for several years before Walker lands back on the operating table.
“It gives her a window to have kids,” said her father. “That’s what she wants.”
So would a fall-back option — essentially replacing Walker’s leaking valves with valves from the heart of a pig. The risk would be higher, but from a reproductive standpoint the result would be the same.
However, if doctors decide a mechanical heart valve is the best choice, Walker’s window for having children would instantly slam shut. Though the mechanical valve is the most durable option, it would require taking a blood thinner — Coumadin — that elevates the chances of birth defects and miscarriage.
That wouldn’t be optimal, according to her dad, but it’s a whole lot better than at least one of the alternatives.
“We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes,” he said, admitting he was struggling to stay focused heading into the weekend.
The Walkers hosted a house party Saturday, and the family, Rouleau included, headed to Boston as a group Sunday.
“Our goal is to be home in a week,” said Randy Walker, who is praying for all he is worth that things don’t get complicated.
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