When Naomi Babcock was born, doctors told her mother that half of her tiny heart was missing.
She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital heart defect that means the left side of her heart never developed.
Her mother remembers being told she had three options for her newborn daughter — a heart transplant, several open-heart surgeries, or to take her baby home and let her pass away.
They opted for the surgeries.
“The odds were really horrible, and they told us she would only live to be about 12 years old,” said Naomi’s mother, Kelly Babcock.
By the time she was 2 1/2, she’d undergone three major surgeries.
But now 17, Naomi is adept at an intensive sport requiring strength and dedication — ballet.
“I just really like the style and the gracefulness and just being onstage,” said Naomi, who grew up in Indiana but now lives in Rochester, N.Y., where she trains at Western New York Ballet. She returned to the Midwest recently to compete in the regional semifinals for the Youth America Grand Prix — what a spokesman calls the “ ‘American Idol’ of ballet.”
The competition at Dominican University Performing Arts Center in River Forest, Ill., runs from Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 10-13, and includes hundreds of competitors. Winners continue to finals in New York, where they will compete in front of an international panel of judges and be considered for ballet scholarships.
Naomi takes several medications to stabilize and strengthen her heart, but said otherwise her condition does not require modifications to her training. The surgeries years ago essentially helped the right half of her heart do all the work, her mother said.
“Everything works twice as hard,” Kelly Babcock said. “It’s kind of remarkable how your body just compensates.”
She enrolled Naomi in ballet as a toddler. “I wanted her to be able to do something normal,” she said, but that did not require a lot of cardiovascular work. “She loved it.”
Naomi performed in her first “Nutcracker” at 7 and hasn’t looked back. Both mom and daughter are convinced ballet has helped keep her heart strong; stress tests show her heart performing as well as a normal heart, they said.
Her heart can skip and race sometimes, so there are moments when she must breathe or slow down. If training involves running, she cannot participate.
And she might need a heart transplant someday. Her mother said her long-term prognosis is unknown; after all, doctors did not expect her to live this long.
Looking forward, Naomi hopes to join a ballet company, perhaps internationally; she likes London’s Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, and also has her eye on the Houston Ballet.
“I really hope to become the first professional dancer with my heart condition,” she said.
This will be the first time she dances at this competition; she is nervous but excited. Before she competes, she practices her performance, prays, listens to music.
Despite having a large, visible scar on her chest, people rarely ask questions that could lead to conversations about her condition, she said. She wouldn’t mind if they did.
“I think some people don’t want to ask people about scars, because they think about it as something personal,” she said. “I think of my scars as battle scars. It’s like pride. I went through this, and I made it.”