High School swimmer pursued her dreams despite debilitating heart defect

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

"They show you everything," she said. "You wonder how (the heart) even works, as messed up as it is. But still, you're always worried, nervous, scared."

Doctors fixed the hole in Hailie's heart when she was nine months old, but it was with a caveat. Her pulmonary valve was still leaking, and at some point, it would need to be fixed. That was another day the young mother hoped would never come.

They moved on and Hailie grew up.

"We just let her be a kid as much as she can," said her mom.

Still, there were situations that reminded the family that Hailie was not just another fun-loving child.

"She had a really hard time with anything that involved running," Stacie said. "In elementary school, they did this thing called the Wellsville Mile. ... She ran that and was sick for two days afterward. She was pale — said she was going to throw up. After that, I was really kind of worried about it."

Doctors told her to try another sport.

"I even had her excused from PE her whole life," Stacie said. "She played softball. But when she was 10 or 11, she said, 'I want to try swimming.'"

It was in the water that Hailie found her passion.

"I put her in the pool and she has not stopped since. ... She's been a little fish."

Hailie said she was unsure of herself before she began swimming.

"It's meant a lot to me," she said of the sport. "Before swimming, I was so shy, so nervous I wouldn't talk to anyone. Now I'm the loudest person here."

It didn't just keep her healthy and busy, it gave her what every teenager craves — friends.

"It's fun to have something to work toward, but I love it just for the social aspect," she said. "It's been the highlight of my high school career."

And Hailie was in the middle of that when she began struggling to keep up with her teammates. Her frustration was explained a few months later when Dr. Day told her that her heart function had gotten significantly worse.

"We knew she would have to have the surgery at some point," Stacie said. "We cried. We were just hoping she would be older." It was possible that if she didn't swim anymore, she could put the surgery off a little longer. So the family turned to their faith.

"We asked Hailie what she wanted to do, and we prayed about it," Stacie said. "She didn't want to live a life where she couldn't be active, where she worried about her heart stopping any second just doing normal stuff."

Cancer claimed the surgeon who'd repaired her heart as an infant, and Stacie felt unsettled about the decision until the day they met their new surgeon.

"He asked how I was feeling, and I said nervous," she recalled. "He said, 'I want you to know this is the right time; I am the right person and she is in the right place.' I had an overwhelming feeling of peace that it was the right thing to do, and that she was going to be OK. ... There was no question we knew it needed to be fixed so she could enjoy her life the way she used to."

That was July of 2011, and Hailie's first question for doctors after surgery was, "When can I swim?"

Within two weeks of having a cow valve sewn into her heart, she was in the water.

"It hurt to move her arms, so she'd just get in an kick," said Stacie. "She only had strength to last about 20 minutes. She got out and said it was amazing. And then she cried because it hurt so much."

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