Shaun White shares childhood battle with heart defects

Olympic champion says it 'instilled a bit of fight in me'

Author: Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H., Local 4 Health Producer, @4goodhealth
Published On: Feb 06 2014 10:48:30 PM EST   Updated On: Feb 09 2014 08:35:41 AM EST

His tricks take your breath away, and twice have brought him Olympic gold.

But Shaun White's snowboarding success is even more stunning when you learn, he was never supposed to become an athlete in the first place.

Nearly one percent of children in the United States are born with some sort of heart defect. White was born with four. He doesn't often talk about his heart condition. He was so young, he doesn't even remember what he went through. But as White prepared to leave for Sochi, Russia, to compete in his third Olympics, he opened up about his early health problems with Local 4.

White first gained fame as the "Flying Tomato," building a public image as bold as his once trademark hair. He burst onto the Olympic scene in 2006, striking snowboarding gold in the half-pipe, then repeating that feat at the 2010 games.

But long before he mastered his heart-stopping tricks, White was having heart surgery.

"I had three open heart surgeries when I was born," said White. "I had a defect of the heart called tetralogy of Fallot."

"'Tetralogy' is four, it's made up of four different abnormalities in the heart," explained Dr. Nancy Cutler, a pediatric cardiologist at Beaumont Children's Hospital.

Cutler has been an avid snowboarder for the past 25 years. She was surprised to learn of White's heart history a few years ago.

"With heart conditions, there are some restrictions that we'll place on kids in terms of not being able to do some activities," said Cutler.

White faced those limits, but refused to let them limit his dreams.

"Growing up and having certain limitations and to overcome those and actually become an athlete. I was supposed to have a 'sluggish heart' and not be able to do much, and here I am, I'm a full-on athlete and it's just funny how these things work," said White. "It instilled a bit of a fight in me from the very get-go."

Tetralogy of Fallot can be genetic, but most of the time, the cause is unknown. It's named after the French physician √Čtienne-Louis-Arthur Fallot, who first described the condition in 1888. Tetralogy of Fallot occurs in about 5 out of every 10,000 babies and affects boys and girls equally.

The four defects that make up tetralogy of Fallot are a thickening of the right ventricle of the heart, a hole in the wall that separates the lower two ventricles, a shifting in the position of the aorta, called an "overriding aorta," and a narrowing of the pulmonary artery.

Babies with tetralogy of Fallot often have a heart murmur or appear blue.

"Everyone that has this condition will need to have open heart surgery," said Cutler.

White had surgery as a baby and says he's grateful to his doctors.

"I'm just so thankful," said White. "You see 'em once in a while, and you're like, 'Nice work! The stitches are still holding, everything's good.'"

Even after successful surgery, patients with tetralogy of Fallot face a greater risk of serious heart problems. They need regular checkups to monitor their heart throughout their lifetime.

While countless fans admire White's daring and success, Cutler says it's particularly inspiring for families dealing with heart defects.

"It is a demanding type of sport, and it is amazing that he has come so far," said Cutler. "It can give parents hope to know that their child can be accomplished. That if you treat a child normally, they can really reach their fullest potential. They're not going to all be Olympic athletes, but they can do what they want to do, to the extent that the doctors safely feel that they can do it."

It's a lesson not lost on White.

"Every now and then you hear a story about a kid or a friend of a friend who's having to go in for similar surgery, and they find out that my condition was more severe than theirs, and they're like 'Oh, I'm going to be fine,'" said White. "I think that's cool that I could instill some sort of hope in people. That's something that's so much bigger than the world of sports."

To learn more about tetralogy of Fallot, visit Beaumont Children's Hospital's website here.

You can also read more about tetralogy of Fallot here.