Odilia Beat The Odds As A Child; Soon She’ll Be Walking A Runway In A Red Dress

As a 5-year-old settling into a temporary home, Odilia Cristabel Flores made friends right away.

Bonding with kids was easy. Her spunky personality quickly won over adults, too. Everyone laughed as she rode through hallways on a skateboard, steering from her knees. Her popularity went up a notch when she became the first person on the floor with a TV.

Sometimes the gatekeepers wouldn’t let Odilia visit her new pals. She often ignored the rules, sneaking in and staying for as long as she could. When caught and sent to her room, she got even by breaking things made of glass.

Thermometers, mostly.

You see, Odilia’s new home was the cardiac unit of a hospital in Guatemala. She spent a month there leading up to a risky operation, one that could’ve taken her life … and did claim several of those children and adults she befriended. That’s why she sometimes was told to stay away.

“I’d ask, `Where’s so-and-so? Why aren’t they here to play with me?'” Odilia said. “It was after the first couple of people didn’t make it that I realized what was happening.”

2017-01-30-1485783542-1733000-Odilia.jpgFast forward 34 years and Odilia is still spunky, curious and adventurous. Perhaps the biggest difference from her 5-year-old self is that she’s no longer slowed by a hole in her heart and the many problems it caused.

The reminder is a chest scar that’s puffier than most because of an infection during recovery. While she proudly displays the scar at the beach, it’s covered at work. That’s why she went more than 10 years at Macy’s with only a few colleagues knowing her amazing story.

Now, as part of Macy’s ongoing relationship with the American Heart Association and Go Red For Women (the retailer has donated $60 million to the cause since becoming the founding national sponsor in 2004), Odilia’s story is taking center stage as we head into February, which is also American Heart Month.

Odilia is among five members of Macy’s corporate family who are sharing their “Stories with Heart.” From this home page, click the “Heart Their Stories” button.

The videos, the website, the entire Go Red movement, the 53-year-history of American Heart Month … they’re all bound by a common thread: Empowerment. With inspiration and information, we can prevent or at least reduce the impact of heart disease.

The fight begins with understanding the opponent. That means knowing that heart disease is not only the No. 1 killer of all Americans, but also the No. 1 killer of women. If that stat alone doesn’t jar you, hearing it framed like this might: Heart disease kills more women each year than all forms of cancer combined.

At the risk of overwhelming you with facts and figures, there are a few more worth noting because they are so timely. They were released last week as part of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update.

  • Cardiovascular disease accounts for about 1 of every 3 deaths in the United States — or, 1 death every 40 seconds.
  • Living with this problem is tough, too, and more than 92 million Americans endure some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of stroke.

Since 1964, February has been set aside by the White House as American Heart Month to help rally our nation’s efforts against its No. 1 killer. Things have improved drastically over that span. The fact that heart disease remains so devastating underscores how serious this foe is.


Fighting heart disease is our mission every month at the American Heart Association. Yet February provides a higher platform to spread our message about awareness and prevention.

Events will be held in communities from coast to coast. I’d like to a highlight a few of the most noteworthy:

  • Friday (Feb. 3) is National Wear Red Day. Many celebrities will be wearing red and I hope you will, too. Keep an eye out for buildings, landmarks and even homes “wearing” red lights in support.
  • The following Tuesday (Feb. 7) is the Women’s Day Red Dress Awards. The AHA honoree is Laila Ali, daughter of the late, great Muhammad Ali. Additional honorees include LaQuitta “Shai” Wilkins, who was Miss Black Alabama USA 2016; Dr. Janine Austin Clayton of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and Dr. Holly Andersen of Women’s Heart Alliance.
  • The following Thursday (Feb. 9) celebrities will show off their favorite red outfits for the Red Dress Collection fashion show presented by Macy’s. TV stars, singers and other entertainers will appear on the red carpet, of course, and along the runway in designer red dresses.

From these exciting events to the eye-popping statistics, you get a sense of what the AHA and American Heart Month are all about.

2017-01-30-1485787085-1336974-redshirt.jpgWhat really drives home our message are individual stories of lives saved, improved and extended. Stories of people like Odilia. So as we wrap up, I’d like to take you back 34 years to that hospital in Guatemala City and a frightened little girl about to undergo surgery.

Odilia had always been pale and weak. Most doctors dismissed it, but her mother was determined to figure it out — and fix it. She continued searching for answers even after Odilia’s dad died in a motorcycle accident, leaving the family struggling emotionally and financially.

The doctor who diagnosed the hole in her heart said that without an operation, Odilia would likely only live to age 15. However, her odds of surviving the surgery were about 50 percent. Indeed, of the nine people who had a similar operation that week, Odilia was among four survivors.

“I remember waking up in intensive care and being so confused and in pain, surrounded by doctors and nurses,” she said. “I was scared, in pain and lonely.”

Recovery was tough, especially that infection. But from this excruciating episode, a powerful person grew.

When Odilia was 8, her mom moved to the United States in hopes of building a better life for their family. Odilia joined her six years later. Although she didn’t know English yet, she learned in time to pull straight As in high school.

Odilia became the first person in her family to attend college, getting a full scholarship to the University of California, Santa Barbara. She earned a bachelor’s degree and later added an MBA.

Like the hallway explorer she once was, she became a world traveler. She’s lived in France and Germany. Work and wanderlust have led her to 45 countries.

A different type of adventure is coming up for her on Feb. 9. She’ll be among those walking the runway in the Red Dress Collection fashion show.

Pretty good for a pale, weak gal who wasn’t supposed to celebrate a 16th birthday, or maybe not even a 6th.

And a pretty wonderful example of what American Heart Month represents.


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