High School swimmer pursued her dreams despite debilitating heart defect

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 7:35 p.m. MST

Hailie Gittins, a senior on the Mountain Crest High School swim team poses after competing in the high school state championships at BYU in Provo Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. Gittins has a unique heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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HYRUM — Hailie Gittins knew something was wrong.

The 17-year-old relished the opportunity to challenge her limits each time she entered the water. And yet, the winter of her sophomore year, she hit a wall that she simply didn't understand.

"During practice, I would notice I got tired faster than the other kids," said the 17-year-old Mtn. Crest swimmer. "It frustrated me."

Her coach at the time, Yolanda Bates, noticed her struggling and suggested she see a doctor. It did not occur to Gittins to tell her long-time coach that she'd had open heart surgery as an infant and likely would need another surgery.

Instead, the teen continued to work hard — tried to push harder.

During that season at a swim meet in Park City, she and her parents ran into her cardiologist. He seemed shocked that Hailie was strong enough to swim competitively.

"Dr. (Ronald) Day couldn't believe it," said Stacie Gittins. "He actually waited around to talk to her and give her a hug."

It was on the drive home that Stacie Gittins realized they hadn't received a reminder card from Primary Children's Medical Center to have Hailie's yearly physical. She made the appointment for April and returned to the organized chaos of daily life.

Doctors appointments, after all, were just part of her daughter's childhood.

Years ago, first-time parents Stacie and Dennis Gittins never suspected there was anything wrong with their beautiful baby girl.

"I just took her to her doctor for her two-week check-up and they noticed something was wrong," said Stacie Gittins. "Her heart didn't sound right. They took us right over to Logan Regional, and put her on an EKG machine because it sounded so awful."

Doctors decided it wasn't immediately life-threatening and told her to take the newborn to Primary Children's the next day. Hours of tests revealed that Hailie had Tetralogy of Fallot — a congenital heart defect, which means four flaws in the heart, including a hole between the bottom two chambers of the heart and narrowing on or around the pulmonary valve.

Tetralogy patients are often called blue babies because their malformed hearts have trouble getting enough oxygenated blood to the body, causing blue coloring around the fingers, and mouth and eyes in some cases. They also have blue spells, in which the child may turn blue, feel light-headed and have trouble breathing.

"You live with that fear," Stacie said. "You're always watching, and babies, when they get upset, they kind of hold their breath. But they told me, 'If she has a spell, you're the mom and you'll know. It will be different.'"

The Gittins were lucky, and Hailie had no symptoms until one morning when she was seven months old.

"I was bathing her, and she wasn't upset or unhappy," Stacie said. "All of a sudden her coloring changed, almost instantly. Her fingers and toes went blue first, and then I looked up and her face was a different color."

She pulled the baby from the water and wrapped her in a towel. She called her husband and their doctor. She doesn't remember the exact sequence of events, only that they ended up back at Primary Children's.

"It was long enough for me to panic," she said. "They did the tests and told us that she'd gotten worse. She had to have surgery. ... We were hoping that we'd be OK, and she'd get bigger and stronger and maybe we wouldn't have to have it. In the back of your mind you think, 'Oh, they're crazy. She doesn't need surgery. They're wrong.' But we knew she'd have to have it."

The fear of turning her infant over to surgeons was overwhelming. But there was no alternative.