Maica Walker’s energy is irrepressible. The fast-talking financial advisor is quick to laugh or make a joke and has been known to spend three hours at the gym—happily. Another detail about Walker that is impossible to ignore: A scar running down the length of her sternum, the result of three open heart surgeries.
There was a time when she may have casually rested a hand on her chest or worn a high-necked shirt to hide the scar.
“I used to be kind of ashamed,” Walker said. “I didn’t want to show my scar for years. I felt like it made people see me as weak, and I didn’t talk about it much.”
But as she grew older, and her first surgery at age 10 turned into a second at 17 and a third at age 30, she began to view the scar in a different light. She recalled the time a stranger approached her and asked if she’d had open heart surgery. When she answered yes, the woman replied, “I have to have open heart surgery. And I’m looking at you, and you look so healthy. I’m not as nervous anymore.”
A typical childhood illness left unchecked led to Walker’s heart issues. Strep throat missed by her pediatrician turned into rheumatic fever, which advanced into rheumatic heart disease. It destroyed her mitral and aortic heart valves.
“When I had my first heart surgery, I was 10 and weighed about 47 pounds—50 at the most. I was pretty much skin and bones,” she said.
Walker had valve replacement surgery in 1985 at Texas Children’s Hospital, under the care of legendary heart surgeon Denton Cooley, M.D. Seven years later, on the verge of adulthood, Walker had outgrown the valves and underwent a second surgery by Cooley, this time at CHI St. Luke’s. And in 2004, doctors discovered cartilage had built up around the valves and replaced both.
“I always feel this rejuvenated energy when I come out of surgery. When you go under the knife, you really have to go in there preparing for that to be it,” Walker said.
Before her last surgery, she wrote notes to close friends and family that she left on her bed, in case she didn’t make it through the procedure.
“When I come out of it, I have all this urgency and energy toward trying to do everything,” she said. “Life is so short. We have this finite amount of time and we have to get everything done.”
That sense of urgency has compelled her to speak openly about her experiences and to give her time to the American Heart Association to raise awareness of heart-related issues.
“We only get one heart, and you have to really know how to take care of it and know the signs when something’s not right,” Walker said.
While she emphasized the seriousness of heart disease, she also said she wants people to know life can be just as full after open heart surgery.
“It doesn’t have to be a death sentence, or you walking around with a cane or in a wheelchair,” she said. “I do everything everybody else does.”
In a quiet room, the audible ticking of her valve replacements is a constant reminder of life after surgery. Sometimes other people notice. “What’s that noise?” they ask. As a kid, it embarrassed her. Now, the ticking and the scar are just a part of who she is.
“It’s a badge of honor. A warrior scar. You’ve been through some things,” she said. “Everybody has scars, it’s just that you can actually see mine.”