Sometimes Bailey Wade just forgets it ever happened.
If not, she’ll just pretend it didn’t.
Having open-heart surgery as a junior in high school may seem hard to forget, but not for Wade.
“To me,” Wade said, “it feels normal.”
This time last year, all Wade wanted was to have a normal senior year.
For her, that meant playing her final season as an outside hitter for the Ellison volleyball team.
But first, Wade had to have surgery for a defect that had kept her from being normal for quite a while.
The right side of her heart was twice the size it was supposed to be.
At the end of her sophomore year, Wade needed a physical to play on the Ellison volleyball team, and coach William De Gracia wanted all of his players to get the free physical set up by Killeen ISD.
Had De Gracia not required his players to do the free physical, making it easier for him to compile the necessary paperwork, she’d never have gone.
“I was like, ‘Bailey, it’s for people without insurance,’” her mother, Tora Haws said. “(But she said) Coach (De Gracia) wants everyone’s paperwork together. And so coach (De Gracia) was really pushing it for all of the kids to go.”
Wade went to her physical, completely unaware that it’d be a life-changing visit.
Yet today, Wade can’t even remember the name of the doctor who changed her life — just that he was wearing a yellow shirt.
“I don’t know his name,” Wade said. “He pulled me to the side and told me I needed to go back and get an echocardiogram.”
An echo, as it’s most commonly referred to, is an ultrasound image of the heart.
After her first one, Wade was told she’d have to get a second one.
“And that’s when they said everything,” Wade said. “‘You’re going to have to get surgery, you can pass up on the surgery, but then you’ll be more at risk when you’re older.’”
Wade was diagnosed with atrial septal defect (ASD), which occurs when a hole in the wall separating the left and right atria allows blood to flow between the chambers in the heart.
The defect causes an enlarged heart, from which Wade suffered, and over-circulation in the lungs.
Wade said she can’t help but wonder how her condition went unnoticed for years as a child.
But Dr. John Pliska, chief pediatric cardiologist of Scott & White Healthcare in Temple, said it is common for the defect to go undetected in children.
“Extra flow makes a heart murmur, sometimes that’s the way it’s detected,” Pliska said. “In small kids, sometimes they don’t have symptoms.”
Pliska said one of the visible symptoms is exercise intolerance, which Wade never displayed.
In fact, Wade was the picture of health leading up to her diagnosis.
“This was a kid who had never been sick — ever,” Haws said. “So, I was scared to death.”
ASD can be treated with a procedure that involves inserting a catheter into a vein that will plug the hole if it is small enough.
But once the hole reaches a certain size, surgery is required, which was the case with Wade.
Doctors recommended she have the surgery immediately, but Wade, not wanting to miss her first year of varsity volleyball, asked if she’d be able to wait until after the season.
Her surgery was scheduled for December, which left Wade and her family with seven months to try to ignore the elephant in the room.
“As a mom, I would’ve liked to have it done right away because I worried about it every single day,” Haws said. “But for her, I knew it was best to let her live her dream. So, for so long, from May to December, this was always in the backs of our minds.”
Wade said she cried when she was first diagnosed and leading up to her surgery, but handled the months in between fairly well.
Her best friend and teammate, Amanda Glover, was admittedly not as calm.
“She was open about it at first, but knowing that my best friend was going to go through that, really, it tore me apart,” Glover said.
“I remember the night before the surgery we FaceTimed, and all we did, we just sat there and we cried — we cried and we cried. Because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Back to normal
After as normal of a junior season as one can have while waiting on open-heart surgery, Wade had her surgery in December.
She then set her mind on making her senior season as normal as possible, one step at a time.
The first was getting out of intensive care, where the beds built for children weren’t even long enough for her 5-foot-10 frame.
Wade was supposed to spend four days in ICU — she was out in one.
“I was getting out of there,” Bailey said. “I wanted sleep.”
Wade remembers a tube inserted in her chest that tugged at her with even the slightest movement.
Tired of that tug, Wade willed her way out of the unit.
“I didn’t really do anything,” Wade said, “I just told myself that I needed to get it done, I needed to not milk it.”
Yet even after leaving ICU, the recovery was trying at times for the independent Wade, who wasn’t allowed to lift five pounds for nearly a month following the surgery.
But with the blessing of her doctor, Wade pushed forward.
“I wasn’t supposed to do anything active for four to five months,” Wade said, “but I started back at three.”
Her determination even surprised her closest of friends, as Glover was stunned to get a call from Wade shortly after spring break asking her to accompany Wade as she ran her required timed mile.
“I was like, uh, what?” Glover said, “What are you doing?”
““She stayed in my offseason,” De Gracia said, “and in my offseason we ran, we lifted, we jumped. We did our stuff, and that’s the thing that I didn’t think that she could do. And I said, ‘watch yourself,’ but she came out and started working out.”
Still regaining her cardiovascular strength, Wade returned to the court in the summer during travel ball.
While Wade had no sympathy for herself, it didn’t stop her mother and teammates from wincing when she played.
“I wouldn’t hit anything at her,” Glover said. “I was like I’m not hitting anything at you.”
Yet after her first fateful dive to dig a ball — in which she landed on the same chest that had been sawed in half then wired shut — Haws said the mental burdens that had endured for more than a year finally seemed to lift.
“She’s very strong-willed and hard headed,” Haws teased, “and I think that is what really pulled her through — she was determined.”
Wade still has the wire in her chest and still doesn’t feel as strong as she did pre-surgery, she said.
But Wade said she feels like her senior year is going just as normally as she hoped, and according to Pliska, her life after high school has a better chance of doing the same.
“The difference now is we probably now have improved her chance of being able to live a normal, long life, “ Pliska said, “and we probably have improved her chance of having a normal pregnancy ... and we probably have improved her chances significantly that she does not have a stroke.”
Pliska said that outside of possible arrhythmia — irregular heartbeats or a racing heart — Wade isn’t susceptible to any new conditions because of her surgery.
She will just have to continue following up with her specialist, which Pliska recommends everyone do occasionally, particularly athletes.
A specialist, he said, is more likely to catch a condition like ASD, as the doctors did that night with Wade last May.
“Looking at athletes, we’re actually screening for rarer things than ASD and things that might cause an athlete to collapse on the field and die,” Pliska said. “During that screening process for the real bad things, we can also pick up more common things.”
Haws highly recommended the physicals that Killeen ISD tries to make available free of charge for the same reason.
“The doctor had listened to her heart for 12 years,” Haws said. “This was a new doctor, never listened to this heart, so he’s probably listening a little bit extra, especially that night.”
“So, whoever the doctor in the yellow shirt was last year, thank you.”
Because of his help, Wade can now truly live a normal life. Even if she forgets at times that her life wasn’t normal at all a year ago.