Don't let her picture fool you. Most days, Mariah Walton is angry. The daughter of fundamentalist Mormons (and one of nine children), Walton never received any formal health care, in spite of what she said were regular pleas for help. She didn't even have a birth certificate or Social Security number when, after turning 18, she finally went to a doctor. The news wasn't good: Walton suffers from severe pulmonary hypertension. Her lungs are damaged, putting her at high risk of infection—she has been at death's door several times.
In April of this year, Walton, now 21, was a guest on the Today Show and Good Morning America, and millions of Americans learned of her struggle. More importantly, they heard her insist Idaho law needs to protect children from parents who use their faith as a shield when accused of neglecting their children's well-being.
Tell me about the day you first heard a healthcare professional say something was wrong.
I had just turned 18, and I told my dad that if he didn't drive me to a doctor, I would call the police. To be clear, he drove me, but he didn't really take me to the doctor. It was a raw, nerve-wracking day. The doctor said I had about five years to live. My parents weren't supportive. One of my sisters, Rachel, stepped in and made sure I got to a hospital in Spokane for more tests. That's where I got my formal diagnosis.
What changed for you medically?
They said I had to start taking quite a few medications and eventually get on a list for a heart/lung transplant.
You're not currently on a waiting list for a transplant.
I'm not strong enough, and I don't weigh enough but eventually, my medicines won't be effective any more.
I understand you have some severe side-effects from at least one of those meds.
It's called Remodulin. It's very strong and slows down the heart and opens up the lungs more. It's a patch on my skin, but sometimes, it causes a sharp, throbbing, constant pain.
Can I assume that you ultimately were accepted by the state of Idaho as a Medicaid patient?
It took quite a bit, because I didn't even have a birth certificate. It took months.
Your mother has been on television insisting this is not a debate about faith healing. Instead, she says she and your father depended on naturopathic medicine.
What she said is not accurate.
When was the last time you saw your parents?
My mother comes to visit me on occasion. I really want to go to counseling with her. We're talking about it. My dad still refuses.
You haven't been shy about talking to lawmakers or a national TV audience about your plight. Where does that resolve come from?
I have a lot of anger. I'm angry about 80 percent of the time.
My sense is we'll be debating this issue again during the 2017 session of the Idaho Legislature.
We keep telling legislators that we need help, but someone at the Legislature needs to step up. This is real life and death. A lot of people may say, 'Oh, any parent ought to be responsible for taking care of this, not the government.' But if a parent hasn't taken that responsibility, somebody needs to step in.
Some people look at possible legislation as a threat to their religious freedoms.
Freedom of religion doesn't say that children should die. It doesn't say it in the Constitution, the Bible or the Book of Mormon.
You have said in the past your parents should be charged as criminals.
I don't think it will happen. If it did, I would be happy. They need some jail time to bring them from fantasy to reality.
I find it difficult to believe you're angry 80 percent of the time.
Maybe 60 percent.