Stacy Ann Walker

Connecticut woman has new perspective on healthy after discovering heart disease during pregnancy.

Stacy-Ann Walker’s last months of pregnancy had been unbearable.

She was constantly exhausted and out of breath. She was retaining so much fluid that her legs “looked like an ice cream cone” when she wore socks. She also had a fluttering in her heart.

Then, during what Walker expected to be a routine exam, the 29 year old got devastating results: her baby was undersized with a dangerously low heart rate. So she underwent an emergency C-section. Her daughter was born at just 2 pounds, 12 ounces.

“It had been going on throughout my pregnancy, but we didn’t know,” Walker said. “If my daughter hadn’t been so tiny, who knows what would have happened.”

That evening, Walker couldn’t sleep, struggling to breathe. The next morning, she got a breathing treatment and an echocardiogram that revealed scarring on her heart from rheumatic fever — something she never even knew she had. She also had fluid in her lungs.

On her second night in the hospital, Walker went into acute respiratory distress. She was given more diuretics to drain fluid quickly and was transferred to the cardiac care unit. Additional testing showed Walker had heart failure, an enlarged heart and problems with multiple heart valves. Her heart was operating at just 36 percent.

The diagnosis stunned Walker.

“For me, health was a look,” she said. “If you’re young and skinny, then you were healthy. I was active, worked out and ate healthy. This really changed my whole concept of what healthy is. I never thought that as a young woman I could have heart disease.”

A cardiologist told Walker her condition may have been triggered by the strain of pregnancy on the pre-existing scarring from rheumatic fever.

Walker continued to take medications as doctors monitored whether she would improve. But after a year, her heart was still enlarged and the regurgitation in her mitral valve was now severe.

In December 2012, she underwent a repair for her mitral and tricuspid valves.

“I thought that would be the end of it and that I would not have to worry about it,” Walker said.

But during a routine check-up in October 2015, testing showed the valves were leaking again. In May 2016, she got a mitral valve replacement.

Walker, now 37 and living in Hartford, Connecticut, maintains close communication with her doctor to monitor any changes in her heart. She also keeps active and maintains a healthy diet.

Nearly half of non-Hispanic black women age 20 and older have some form of cardiovascular disease. While more than 50 percent of women are aware that heart disease is their leading cause of death, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic women are less aware than non-Hispanic white females.

“My story could have been tragic if I wasn’t in the right place at the right time,” she said. “I’m just grateful to be here and have a daughter that is fine. They saved her and saved me, too.”

Walker is sharing her story to raise awareness about heart disease and inspire women to take charge of their heart health — just like she did.

“I want to educate and empower other women to be their own advocate and to know that they’re not alone,” she said.