Aug 5, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge, Staff WriterThe couple's baby, Madison, was born with a heart defect and had to have a transplant after several surgeries proved unsuccessful.
When former Riverton residents Tabitha, 26, and Austin Fleak, 27, found out their unborn child would have a heart defect, they embraced the fact everything happens for a reason.
"It was pretty devastating to think you are having a healthy baby, and then be told there will be heart problems," Tabitha said. "I didn't drink caffeine, I didn't eat deli meat, I followed all of the rules for a healthy pregnancy, but ultimately it didn't matter. It was God's plan for our lives to go through this."
Austin Fleak was born with a heart defect, and Tabitha was concerned their child could also be born with a defect. Two doctors in Wyoming told the Fleaks it appeared nothing was wrong with their baby but encouraged the couple to get more testing to eliminate any doubt.
"The second doctor we went to said it would be helpful to be 100 percent sure there was nothing wrong with our baby, so we flew to Salt Lake City and had a fetal echocardiogram (a sonogram of the heart) and found out our baby did have the heart defect," Fleak said.
The Fleaks found out about the problem in June and on Aug. 2, 2011, Madison Rae Fleak was born with multiple heart defects.
Normally, repairing holes in the heart is a routine surgery, but after numerous surgical attempts, it was discovered the defect was more complicated than originally diagnosed.
Madison underwent three open heart procedures to close the holes in her heart at hospitals in Utah and California, but her health did not improve.
The Fleaks were told Madison would need a heart transplant to survive so the young family relocated to Texas so Madison could be treated in the heart center at the Texas Children's Hospital.
Madison's pediatric heart surgeon at Texas Children's Hospital, Dr. Dean McKenzie, said at the time he started treating Madison, her heart muscle had become so weak from the surgeries that it eventually stopped.
"Madison required CPR and resuscitation with mechanical support to keep her alive," McKenzie said. "The family and doctors that originally took care of her didn't appreciate how serious things would become in the future."
McKenzie described the night he received a call saying that Madison had received a heart from a donor.
"I was at home taking care of my three young children due to my wife being out of town," McKenzie said. "I got a call that we had received a heart for Madison so I immediately called my mom to come over and spend the night with my kids."
McKenzie said Madison's heart transplant surgery lasted 10 hours.
He said that although the surgery was successful, a heart transplant is not a cure.
"With a heart transplant, you have to suppress the immune system, but a child has a very active immune system which they need to grow and develop normally," McKenzie said. "The transplant is effective in extending the lives of children who have serious and fatal heart problems. With no doubt they can have a high quality of life."
Tabitha said the whole process has been an emotional roller coaster, and it was her faith that got her through.
"You have good days, and you have bad days, with the only thing to look forward to is the final goal and not get too far ahead of yourself," Tabitha said. "The Lord gives you an amazing sense of strength. Your daughter spends her first year of life in the hospital, and then all of a sudden you get a call she has a heart and everything changes."
Throughout the tumultuous process of helping her daughter survive, Tabitha wrote a blog that captured the attention of Wyoming residents and others who devoted time and energy to praying for Madison.
"I decided to start the blog, because we had moved from our home, and I wanted to be able to have people know specifics on what they could pray for," Tabitha said. "At that time, I felt it was really important for the people that love us and love her to know what she is doing. It ended up being huge with so many wonderful people in Riverton and surrounding areas lifting us up with encouragement."
The Fleaks have learned to take one day at a time as they try to regain elements of normalcy with their daughter.
"Madison is attempting to crawl now," Tabitha said. "She has never been able to do that before due to not being able to be on her stomach to breathe. It is like we have a different child."
On Aug. 2, Madison turned 2 years old. It will be her first birthday outside of a hospital.
"We could not be more happy and will more than likely spend the day as a family at home," Tabitha said.
Tabitha said she wants Madison's story to help others who might be going through the same thing.
"I think it is hard to get caught up in your day-to-day lives and not stop and remember the little things in life," Tabitha said. "If I can help encourage one person that might be going through a difficult time or a similar situation then I have done what I hoped to accomplish."
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