A heart for Emily: Community rallies around youth during health battle

Emily Walker smiles after opening a care package from her Holy Trinity Elementary teachers earlier this year. Emily is recovering at home after receiving a heart transplant in February and hopes to return to the West Point school in the fall.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Fourth-grader Emily Walker is on the mend after a months-long health battle that led to a heart transplant in February.

“She’s the strongest girl I know,” said her mother, Maria Reif Walker. “She’s upbeat and ready to get back to doing all the typical 10-year-old things like having sleepovers, going to camp and playing sports.”

The Walkers — Brad, Maria and their three children — are members of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison. Emily is a student at Holy Trinity Elementary in West Point. Emily’s ordeal began last summer when she began experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath and nausea. She was a “happy and active” kid, according to her mom, so it came as a surprise. “She just wasn’t herself.”


After multiple doctor visits, Emily received treatment for acid reflux, asthma and anxiety. Things seemed to be back to normal until December, when Emily struggled to overcome what seemed to be a routine case of influenza A. Doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City diagnosed Emily with heart, liver and kidney failure along with pneumonia and sepsis. Tests showed that Emily was born with an enlarged heart. “While her heart issues had been brewing for her whole life, influenza tipped the scales,” her mom said.

Doctors stabilized Emily and while her liver and kidney function improved, her heart did not. It was functioning at about 15% and Emily’s resting heart rates were about three times higher than the average 10-year-old. It became clear that Emily needed a heart transplant. Doctors performed surgery Jan. 11 to place a Left Ventricular Assist Device that would keep Emily safe until a new heart became available. Doctors advised Emily to limit the use of her arms. “She had a PICC line and multiple IVs, so hand and arm movements were difficult,” her mom said. “After her surgery she couldn’t lift anything more than 5 pounds or push up from her bed to stand. She always needed a helper to get around.”

Maria and Brad coordinated their schedules to accompany Emily during hospital stays.  Emily missed the comforts of home, especially her brothers Jacob, 13, and Nathan, 8. Phone calls home helped, as did regular visits from her grandparents.

Emily said her friends stayed in touch and did whatever they could to make her feel loved. In January, they made signs and stood in the football stadium parking lot “so we could see them from my room.” She also felt the love from nurses who cheered her on in the hallways when she was well enough to walk.

During Emily Walker’s stay at the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City earlier this year, friends from Holy Trinity Elementary in West Point surprised her by making signs and standing outside her hospital room window.

Holy Trinity Schools, including the junior/senior high in Fort Madison, rallied around Emily and the Walker family. Holy Trinity Catholic Elementary students created a “spiritual bouquet,” decorating paper flowers with prayers and words of encouragement for Emily. The school hosted a T-shirt fundraiser and offered several opportunities for students to wear the brightly colored shirts, which featured Emily’s name in a heart on the front and “Faith over Fear” on the back. Administrators photographed the elementary school students wearing the shirts and gave Emily a framed print. When she earned Crusader of the Month recognition in January, her teachers drove to Iowa City to deliver the certificate in person. “The theme for January was perseverance — who better to exemplify perseverance than Emily,” said Judi Dinwiddie, the school’s marketing director.

Her dad’s alma mater, Burlington-Notre Dame, hosted a 50/50 raffle during the boys’ basketball games vs. Holy Trinity Jan 24. Spectators on both sides of the court wore red in support of Emily.

Holy Trinity families and staff organized two fundraisers — one at Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison and one at St. James the Less Parish in St. Paul — to help Emily’s family with medical expenses. Emily admitted she was surprised by all of the community support. Her mom said the outpouring of love was a blessing “we never knew we needed.”

On Feb. 15, doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals informed the Walker family that they had found a compatible heart. “We were in Iowa City that afternoon prepping Emily for surgery,” her mom recalled. “An impending snowstorm pushed her surgery into the middle of the night, but she was back to us later in the morning with a new heart and a second chance at life. We will forever be grateful to our donor family for giving Emily this gift of life.”

Emily returned home in late February. She began cardiac rehabilitation on Easter Monday and will start physical therapy soon. “With a healthy diet and exercise regimen she will be able to live a normal life,” her mom said. Anti-rejection medication will prevent her immune system from damaging the new organ.

Doctors recently cleared Emily to begin using her arms again. She is eager to resume bicycling, swimming and playing team sports and looks forward to returning to school in the fall.

Emily’s parents say they are in awe of her perseverance throughout this process. “She’s handling the situation better than I ever could,” her mom said. “She’s my hero; she’s taken every step of this process with strength and determination to get back to living a normal life.”

Emily believes God has been with her every step of her health journey and will continue to be a constant presence in her life. “He is always with me.”

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