‘Champions aren’t made of muscle, they’re made of heart’
February 22, 2014
It's easy to see how brave 6-year-old Kyndal Chadwick is as she tumbles and swings from the bars during gymnastics practice, but the full extent of her bravery isn't apparent until you know what she's fought through to get there.
This Valentine's Day marks the two-year anniversary since Kyndal's open-heart surgery to repair a heart defect she's had since birth. When she was 15 months old, doctors repaired a hole in her heart, but by the time she was 3, her parents noticed she was having issues with her endurance.
"We went to a birthday party at Jumpin' in Centerra and she complained after about 20 minutes to my husband about her heart hurting," Kyndal's mother, Kris Chadwick, said. "We thought maybe she was getting sick and didn't really think much of it. After about 10 minutes of sitting, she felt better and went out to play, but about 20 minutes later she came back again and said 'my heart hurts.' "
After extensive testing, doctors found she had a heart defect known as an intramural anomalous coronary artery, which is known for causing sudden death in athletes, Kris said.
"Kids don't say their heart hurts," she said. "About 95 percent of cases with her defect are found in autopsy. So usually children don't survive."
She and her husband, Andrew, were told that Kyndal, only 4 years old at the time, needed immediate open-heart surgery, which doctors scheduled for Valentine's Day.
"There's nothing like having somebody tell you that you have to give them your daughter and you may not see her again," Kris said. "We had to tell her because she was 4 and she was smart. The first thing she said was that she didn't want to have a scar. You want your kids to get scars because they fall off their bike, not because they have to take their heart out, stop it and put it on a bypass machine. But they do heart surgery every single day, so you know that she's going to be OK. But she's my baby."
She said Kyndal was far braver than she ever could have anticipated her 4-year-old could be.
"She was the bravest out of all of us," Kris said. "She gave her dad a stuffed lion and told him 'this is so you can hold this when I'm in there and be brave.' "
During surgery at The Children's Hospital, doctors took Kyndal's heart out of her chest, bypassing her blood flow and stopping the beating of her heart. They took her coronary arteries and removed them out of the aorta, where they had been embedded, and laid them on top.
"When they got in there, they found she had both arteries — the right and the left, embedded in her aorta," Kris said. "We were really lucky because she was able to tell us something was wrong. They pretty much told us that had we not done something, at some point when she was doing physical activity, she probably would have died."
Kyndal remained in the intensive care unit for 3½ days before she was transferred to the cardiac floor of the hospital, where she stayed for another five days. When she came home, she became sick from fluid that had surrounded her heart, and she was flown back to The Children's Hospital for two days and treated with a drug regimen to get rid of the fluid.
"Her story has touched a lot of people," Kris said. "She's my hero. I don't think I could do what she's done. She is a pretty determined and amazing girl, she doesn't let anything get her down."
Her operation was invented and performed by James Jaggers, chief of congenital cardiac surgery at The Children's Hospital in Denver, Kris said. The family keeps in close touch with Jaggers, often sending him videos of Kyndal's gymnastics competitions so he can see how she's doing. In fact, Jaggers will chaperone Kyndal at an upcoming Little Hearts Luncheon and Fashion Show fundraiser at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum.
Kyndal now has to go down for an echocardiogram and EKG every three to six months to make sure the blood flow through the vessels in her heart is still sufficient.
"He saved my daughter's life," Kris said.
Coming back to gymnastics
Kyndal started gymnastics when she was 3 years old, but when her parents found out she needed heart surgery, they had to take her out of the class. Doctors didn't want her to return to the sport at first, but Kris said Kyndal begged to go back. After about 8 months, doctors gave her the green light to return.
"When she first started the team and they would condition, I would sit up in those windows and watch her, and constantly look at the coaches and ask 'are we OK?' " Kris said. "I would stay here for the whole four hours, I never left. Now, I feel more comfortable and will go home during practice."
She said Kyndal's coaches have become good at reading her and she's able to tell someone if she has a problem.
"It's fun," Kyndal said while sitting on a trampoline at gymnastics practice Wednesday. "I get to do every event."
Kyndal practices at the Windsor Gymnastics Academy eight hours each week. She said she's especially good at backtucks and the bars.
"She never takes no for answer," Kris said. "So she came back here and at that time she was just a beginner. Now she's on the team and competing. She could only run about a minute or two and now she can go six or seven minutes without stopping. The doctors have said she pretty much knows her body well. There's a certain look she gets in her face if it's starting to get to be too much."
Kyndal competes in her ninth competition this weekend when her team travels to Florida for the Magical Classic Gymnastics Meet. Kris said from Kyndal's first meet last September to her most recent meet last weekend, she improved her all-around score by four-and-a-half points in a sport where tenths of points matter.
"She wants to be the next Gabby Douglas," Kris said. She said she and Kyndal watched a television program recently about the athlete and the show proclaimed that "champions aren't made of muscle, they're made of heart," and Kyndal told her mom, "that's me."
"Her dreams are big," Kris said.