WEST VALLEY CITY — Doctors know diseases. They know from years of experience and studies what certain diseases can do to a person's body.
Much more difficult to predict, however, is what effect that same disease will have on a person's spirit, how it will change or shape a personality.
So when doctors told Jeff and Tonya Heaton that their baby daughter had several birth defects, including scoliosis, they only predicted the effect the disease would have on little Brittney's physique.
"They told me she'd walk with a limp, that she wouldn't be able to hold her head up straight," said Tonya Heaton with a grin. "We go to the doctors every year, and they're amazed at everything she's doing."
Amazed because Brittney Heaton, now a 17-year-old senior at Granger High School, is a three-sport varsity athlete and student body officer. Currently, she is the co-captain of the Granger volleyball team, despite being unable to turn her head to the left independent of her body.
Heaton may not look like every other player on the volleyball court, but she doesn't act any differently. She dives, jumps, spikes, passes and does all the little team cheers and dances any other player with skill and spirt attempt.
Her appearance isn't the only difference, however. In addition to playing with almost chronic pain, she does so knowing full well that if she gets hit the wrong way, she could seriously injure or paralyze herself.
"There are times when I know she's in pain," said her volleyball coach Kristin Estes. "She doesn't say anything. It's just a look on her face once in a while."
She puts up with the pain and the unthinkable possibilities because she loves the games. While Brittney Heaton's doctors may be able to tell her what's wrong with her body, they just can't understand why her spirit just refuses to accept it.
Heaton has two extra vertebrae at the top of her neck and she's missing two vertebrae on the bottom of her spine. This leads the spine to curve severely, but also, the vertebrae on those spots doesn't line up one on top of the other. Instead, one side hangs over the other, leading to a very tenuous situation.
That led her doctors to tell her parents long ago that she should never do anything too physical. But little Brittney wanted to play softball when she was six, basketball 10 or 11 and volleyball in junior high. She wanted to play, and her parents decided her happiness was worth the risk. Even they, however, were surprised at how much success she's had.
"Oh, yeah," said mom watching her practice. "She's a good player. The doctors told her no and she didn't say anything. She just got out to the car and said, 'No way. If they take my sports away, there's nothing left of me.' "
So mom and dad agreed to let her play, and Brittney agreed to be careful.
"She knows her limits," Tonya Heaton said. "She knows when to stop. There are times when she's in pain afterward, but she's not a complainer."
Brittney could have a straight spine if she'd only let doctors operate, which they've wanted to do for years. But to have the surgery, which would allow physicians to insert a metal rod in her back and ensure its stability, Brittney would absolutely have to give up sports.
"Everyday I play something," Brittney said. "I can't quit. It's what I want to base my future on. I want to be a teacher and a coach."
Tonya Heaton believes sports have actually improved her daughter's health and held the disease at bay.
"I think exercise has made her body stronger," mom said.
Asked if she feels like what she does is out of the ordinary, she shrugs and then blushes.
"I don't feel like it's amazing," she said. "It's not amazing."
But to her family, her teammates and her coach, she is a testament to what hard work and determination can overcome. Heaton's used something besides sports to help her cope with pain and a disease that wants to destroy her body. She's used a sense of humor. From grade-school name-calling to just off-the-cuff remarks at school, Brittney has turned her disability into fodder for fun.
"She's great," said co-captain of the volleyball team Amanda Orgill. "I love her. She's my friend on and off the court, so I'm around her a lot. She's so great about everything, her attitude. She's so happy all the time, and she handles it by joking about it. If it was me, I don't know how I'd handle it."