As 23-year-old dance teacher Raven Walton competes on CBS’ “Big Brother” this summer, she’ll be fighting for more than the $500,000 prize. She’s also raising awareness of her chronic illness, gastroparesis, and the gastric pacemaker she uses to treat her condition.
The Arkansas native was diagnosed with gastroparesis at 16. In a pre-show interview for CBS, Walton said it’s possible to actually see her pacemaker in her stomach. She’s asking “Big Brother” viewers to use the hashtag #PacerPower when discussing her on the show on social media.
“Pacer power, ya’ll!” Walton said. “It gave me a second chance at life. And it’s my second heart.”
Gastroparesis is a chronic digestive condition that literally means “paralyzed stomach.” The stomach does not contract normally, preventing digestion of food and leading to symptoms like nausea, vomiting and malnutrition. Though the condition currently has no cure, treatment options include diet changes, medication and in some cases a feeding tube.
The gastric pacemaker, or gastric neurostimulator, is a relatively new treatment in which a small battery-powered device is implanted under the skin and connected to electrodes placed on the stomach. Electrical impulses stimulate the stomach. Again, gastric pacemakers are not a cure and are not effective for everyone with gastroparesis, but some patients find one can help improve their symptoms. Walton’s battle to afford a gastric pacemaker was featured on CNN when she was 15.
Like most people with gastroparesis, Walton wants to raise awareness; in a feature about Walton that aired on KTHV 11 last year, she said she’s hoping gastroparesis can some day have an “ice bucket” moment (referring to the once popular Ice Bucket Challenge). How she’s feeling fluctuates every day, and she knows she may not always be able to do things like dance, so she’s trying to fit in as many experiences while she still can.
“I know one day eventually I won’t be able to do all these things. I know my disease is going to progress to where I can’t. So that’s why I’m doing it now,” Walton said.
Walton’s illness will also influence how she spends the money if she wins — she told The Hollywood Reporter she isn’t able to have children because of the pacemaker and “different circumstances,” so the first thing she’d do is freeze her eggs.
“[The show] is bigger than me. It’s my future. I’ve been through a lot with my disease and it’s taken a lot away from me growing up,” Walton said. “This is my chance to take some of that back.”
“Big Brother” airs Sundays and Wednesdays at 8/7c and Thursdays at 9/8c on CBS.