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High School swimmer pursued her dreams despite debilitating heart defect

Published: Monday, July 27 2015 7:34 p.m. MDT

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) 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)

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.

"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."

Mtn. Crest's swim coach at the time was Yolanda Bates, who is now an assistant at BYU. She never knew Gittins had a heart defect, and the teen she'd hired to help her teach young children to swim never offered it as an excuse.

It wasn't until Hailie told Bates she'd be having surgery that the coach understood the girl's struggles.

"I had never had an athlete that had such a condition before," Bates said. "We thought it would be the end of her swimming."

Instead, Bates came up with special workouts for Gittins so she could ease back into the sport she loved.

"We started slow," said Bates. "She kind of did really well right off, but we had to be careful. She just never could get up to the volume and intensity at was required of her. And yet, she qualified for state."

Hailie — who slept with oxygen and took daily medications — had to be careful, and Bates said there "were a couple of scary moments because she'd push herself." But through it all, she admired the teen's determination.

"She is intense and extremely responsible and committed and loyal and obedient," said Bates, who met the bus from Mtn. Crest to greet her former athletes. She and Hailie embraced in a tearful reunion.

"She is dear to my heart," the coach said.

Now a senior, Hailie qualified for state in a medley relay and the 100-meter breast stroke. She competed for the last time as a Mustang Saturday night, and while she didn't break any records or win any medals, her participation is a victory for a lot of people.

When she feels frustrated by what her body won't let her do, she hears the reassurances of her coach and her parents.

"Yolanda helped me a lot," said Utah State-bound senior, who now hopes to teach and coach swimming someday. "She just always told me, 'Do what you can do, you are amazing anyway.' My parents were the same, and they always made sure I knew they were proud of me."

The Gittins said pride and gratitude overwhelm them when they see what their daughter has accomplished.

"Every time she swims, I cry," Stacie said. "You can't live your life always wondering what might happen."

The family is grateful to diligent doctors, who also understood the value of sports in the life of a young girl. They consider themselves blessed most especially to have found Dr. Day, whose children also swim.

"Every time we go to Primary's, your heart breaks thinking, 'How did we get so lucky to get a cardiologist who understood Hailie and helped us?'" Stacie said. "He's one in a million and we feel it was some kind of inspiration."

Hailie said just considering her life without swimming was devastating.

"I wouldn't have known what to do," she said on the eve of her final high school race. "It has taught me how to work really hard and how to be dedicated to something. You need to learn to set goals, otherwise, you're not going to get where you want to go."

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