As her parents sat in the family room of their home in the farmlands of Darke County southwest of Versailles and talked about one side of her life, Samie Swank suddenly decided she wanted to show another.
“Come, I show,” she said in a tiny voice which sometimes needs a trained ear to decipher.
“She wants to show you her bedroom,” Travis Swank said with bemusement as he watched his little girl lead a visitor past her tricycle, her drum set and her dog Gus, a Goldendoodle which is cream colored and towers over her with loving protectiveness.
At the end of the hallway she stepped into what, at first glance, seemed to be the conventional confines of a typical 2-year-old.
Samie’s dad is the first-year head basketball coach of Versailles High School, a team he has guided to a 20-1 record and a No. 3 ranking among Ohio’s Division III schools.
Her mom, the former Katie Hittle, was a cheerleader at Greenville High and then Miami University, where she was known for her tumbling and acrobatic skills.
Samie is a performer too and on this evening, her room was her stage.
A doll baby sat atop one dresser, a pair of piggy banks were perched on a chest of drawers across the room. Against the wall was a toy chest from which she soon was gleefully pulling one thing after another and putting all of it on her bed for display.
She brought a miniature horse trailer filled with horses, a Peppa Pig bag filled with figurines, a motorized dump truck — “She likes boy toys,” her dad chuckled — and a set of bowling pins and a ball.
All this was about what you would expect until Katie opened the closet door.
Beneath the hanging clothes were stacks of large boxes.
“This is actually the formula we feed her every day.” Katie said in reference to the six daily feeding tube sessions, each lasting 30 minutes, that begin at 6:30 a.m. and finish at 9:30 p.m.
Next to the boxes was extra tubing, feed bags and other essentials for the process. Behind that doll on the dresser, Travis explained, was Samie’s pacemaker monitor which reports back to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
And when Katie lifted Samie’s ruffled, long-sleeve shirt — which had a big heart across the front — you saw the long, zipper-like scar running down the center of her little chest. On her side you saw the port for the feeding tube.
Hidden beneath her belly muscles, just below her rib cage — the only place the device would appropriately fit on her 23-pound body — was the surgically-implanted pacemaker.
“If you could see in there, you’d see all the wires running up to her heart,” Travis said.
Although Samie may come off as all adorable charm, her dad admitted:
“She’s a tough little booger. She’ll be 3 at the end of April, but already she’s had her chest cracked open twice. She’s like a little Mighty Mouse.”
With Valentine’s Day just a couple day off, this is a story all about heart … and love.
Samie was born with a rare heart defect where the ventricles are flip-flopped — the left is on the right and the right on the left. It’s called transportation of the great vessels, but hers is the “corrected” version, her dad said, meaning somehow the wrong mechanism was pumping the blood to the right areas.
While the heart worked now, when you added in her other problems — instead of lying flat, her heart sets on its side, there’s a large hole in her heart and a tri-cuspid valve was too small — it was feared the problems could be fatal.
After an initial surgery in Cincinnati, the major repair work was done in an eight-hour operation at the highly-acclaimed Boston Children’s Hospital.
And in April, Samie will head to Baltimore for what could be a two-month stay where she is weaned off the feeding tube that has nourished her her entire life.
She eats no food by mouth, partly as a reflex after her first 18 months of nonstop vomiting and the discomfort, pain and fear that came with it.
“She’s been through the wringer,” Travis said quietly. “But if you looked at her you wouldn’t know anything is wrong.”
Katie smiled: “My mom always says, when they fixed her up they put an extra tick in here ticker.”
Travis agreed: “She a rambunctious 2-year old, always laughing, giggling and running around. Like her mom, she loves to flip and tumble and jump around. She’s just a happy kid now.”
All this is testament to a large, caring group of family members, friends, medical personnel and especially Travis and Katie.
While guiding Versailles hoops to great heights this season, Travis has concentrated on his daughter, as he showed the other evening when he walked in the door from practice and immediately was on the floor with her playing with her toys.
But as Travis was quick to note: “The hero here is Katie. It’s been a lot more trying on her than me. She quit her job and basically turned herself into a nurse. She’s just awesome. She’s probably the mom of the year.”
Yet, the real star is Samie, who has endured the unimaginable and ended up a joyous, heart-melting charmer who exudes life in so many things she does.
That’s what happened in her bedroom, where she pulled out toy after toy to show what she could do with them.
But finally even she had a moment of temperance.
Viewing her suddenly toy-strewn room, she looked up and said:
“I’m making a mess.”
Although he said they had lived just 10 minutes apart, Travis – who at 32 is three years older than his wife — said he and Katie didn’t know each other growing up.
He was a basketball star at Franklin Monroe High, then played two years at Wittenberg University. After graduation, he taught and coached one year at Ben Logan High before coming to Versailles, where he worked his way up the coaching ladder and eventually spent six years as the JV coach and a varsity assistant to Scott McEldowney.
Katie cheered for Miami University football and especially the basketball teams of the late Charlie Coles.
“Those are good memories,” she said.
After graduation she planned to move away — “to a city,” she said — but then she was introduced to Travis and ended up taking a job with her dad, who runs Hittle Buick GMC in Greenville.
She and Travis married in July 2012 and two years later in April their first child was due.
Katie said her 21-week ultrasound at Kettering Medical Center was called “normal” although she said she was told they couldn’t get a picture of the baby’s heart.
She was scheduled to meet a specialist there when she ended up in the hospital ahead of time because of kidney stones. That’s when she pushed for another ultrasound and when the “heart defect” was discovered.
Told there could be “other problems,” as well, she called Travis, who she had told to go on to a basketball game he was coaching that night.
After her call, he said: “I don’t remember the game. I know we lost, but my mind was elsewhere.”
The couple had some trying moments until the results of an amniocentesis came back. Meantime, Katie said her Kettering doctor directed her to Cincinnati Children’s, where the extent of the problem was diagnosed.
Because Katie had such a high-risk pregnancy, the couple rented an apartment in Cincinnati so she could be close should she go into labor. Katie’s mom moved down with her and Travis — who teaches special needs students at Versailles — joined her on weekends.
“I was in a state of disbelief that all this was happening,” Katie admitted. “It was almost like a dream. I didn’t even want any baby showers. I wanted it to be a happy time, but I knew it wouldn’t.”
Because they weren’t sure if Samie would survive, the couple had their minister there with them at University Hospital to baptize the baby immediately after birth.
Samie arrived at 6 pounds, 9 ounces and after Katie was allowed to hold her, the baby was taken straight to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Cincinnati Children’s.
Sent home after a week with a tube down her nose for feeding, Samie didn’t grow and was labeled “failing to thrive,” Katie said.
At two months, Samie was brought back to Children’s to have a band surgically put around her pulmonary artery.
“It was meant to slow the flow to her heart, which was working all the time like she was on a treadmill,” Katie said.
Back home Samie’s feeding problems, non-stop vomiting and crying persisted, resulting in sleepless nights for all. Because Samie wasn’t even crawling, a physical therapist was brought in to help.
And the heart defects still needed to be repaired. Luckily, the family was able to connect with Boston Children’s, thanks to the help of former Greenville High and New England Patriots football standout Matt Light and his wife Susie, whose own son was treated there.
In Boston, Samie was put under the care of Dr. Pedro Del Nido, the chief of cardiac surgery, who performed the long and intricate “Double Switch” surgery.
A week later, to ensure the heart would stay in proper rhythm, a pacemaker was installed.
Although Samie has soldiered on from one medical procedure to another, she does not like being poked, prodded or even visiting most doctors, her dad said.
“If she could have given us the middle finger after surgery, she would have,” Travis said with a laugh.
But that’s when Boston Children’s broke with protocol and brought in a Goldendoodle that reminded Samie of her pal Gus.
“She finally smiled and that’s when we knew she was OK,” Travis said.
Since then Samie has thrived and now the major obstacle is learning to eat food with her mouth.
The Baltimore session will include behavioral specialists and speech therapists and Katie hopes once they return home they’ll be able to permanently remove their daughter’s feeding tube.
“We don’t know what normal is,” Katie said quietly. “To finally have her eating would be wonderful.”
‘Don’t ever give up’
Travis sat in the coaches’ office at Versailles High after practice the other evening and took out his phone to show the collection of photos he has of his daughter — hooked to wires, tubes and monitors — after her two major surgeries.
It was those indelible images that had blurred his view of the Versailles job when it opened last spring following McEldowney’s retirement.
“Although it was something I always wanted to try, I wasn’t sure it was a good time for us,” Travis said. “But Katie was like, ‘You gotta try it. I’ll be able to take care of Sam.’ ”
As Katie explained: “I know how much he loves basketball. It was such a great opportunity and I said it may not come about again. Sam was doing a lot better and our parents help so much so I felt confident I could handle most of it myself.”
Travis also credits the Versailles’ administration, other teachers and especially his coaching staff with allowing him to attend to Samie when school duties might otherwise be calling.
Katie last brought their daughter to a basketball game during the Christmas break. But Samie got ill afterwards so now they don’t want to risk another health scare before the Baltimore trip.
“When she comes, she likes to dress like a cheerleader like her mom,” Travis laughed. “And now when I leave home, she goes, ‘Daddy go to basketball?’
“I tell her that’s right, so she and Katie listen on the radio.”
Katie laughed: “She’ll hear them say we made a basket and she’ll clap and say ‘Go Tigers, go!’ ”
While his team has done a lot of winning this season, Travis said his daughter also has taught him something about losses:
“As coaches we get immersed in what we’re doing and sometimes lose perspective. After going through what we have with Sam, my outlook has changed a little. A loss is still a big deal, but I know there are far more important things. All it takes is going home and seeing our daughter.”
That vision has changed another viewpoint, as well.
“At first we kind of felt, ‘Why is this only us?’ ” Travis said. “We felt like everybody else was having healthy kids. ‘Why not us?’
“But then we’ve gone to these hospitals and seen other families and other children who have it just as bad or worse. We realize we are truly blessed to have Sam in our lives. We have a vibrant little girl who is funny and full of life and, in our view, just perfect.”
Thanks to Samie, they have learned about others, as well.
“In the news you hear all these bad things about people, but in times like this you realize how many good people there are,” Travis said. “So many of them have helped us out. Not just family and friends, but also people that came out of nowhere. People we don’t know.
“They give you things. They pray for you. They support you and help you through it.
“And that’s one message we want to get out. For people out there looking for answers, don’t ever give up. Keep on searching and the answers can come. They did for us.”
He said his and Katie’s dream for Samie is just “to have as normal of a life as possible.
“We hope she gets a good education and can be as smart as she can be. Hopefully, one day she can do something to help someone else down the road. Maybe one day she’ll be able to show people the good things that can come when you don’t give up.”
Actually, she already is.
All you have to do is follow her when she says:
“Come, I show.”