Against Overwhelming Odds
The Springer family shares their emotional story of surviving and qualifying
Hayden Springer is going to play in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines this week. A great accomplishment in any player’s career. Then consider the journey the Springer family has been on, and you wonder how he even is able to get the tee in the ground.
Emma and Hayden Springer met as freshmen at Texas Tech. Both were playing golf for the school, and their shared passion for the game helped the relationship quickly bloom. For golf reasons Hayden transferred to TCU—as a senior he won the Big 12 championship, outdueling Viktor Hovland—but Emma and Hayden’s love for each other never wavered. They were married on Aug. 2, 2019, after Hayden had graduated and begun his pro career. A pregnancy soon followed, and their daughter was due in October 2020. It seemed like the start of a storybook life together.
In May 2020, Emma went in for a routine ultrasound. The doctors discovered some abnormalities: the umbilical cord had two blood vessels instead of three, and there were some cysts on the baby’s brain. A gauntlet of tests and doctor visits followed, measuring and testing to narrow down the issues. On June 30 Emma went in for an amniocentesis. She had to go in alone, as Hayden wasn’t allowed in due to COVID-19 protocols. A week later the couple received the devastating news that their baby had Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of all or part of chromosome 18. About 50 percent of the babies with Trisomy 18 are stillborn. For the 50 percent who survive, the average life span is between two and 14 days. Those who make it into the world are often exceedingly small, with severe heart defects. Most hospitals won’t attempt the surgery needed to correct the heart defects, deeming it too high-risk.
For the rest of the pregnancy, the Springers were plunged into a state of fear and uncertainty. How could they celebrate a baby who probably wouldn’t survive? There would be no baby shower, no registry, and no family shopping for all the necessities. Emma had purchased a crib before the diagnosis, but it remained in a box in the garage. Doctors told the couple repeatedly that even if Sage was born with a heartbeat, she wouldn’t make it more than 72 hours.
Hayden kept competing on the All-Pro Tour, a mini based in the central U.S., but for the first time in his career he struggled to concentrate inside the ropes. There was no refuge, even on the golf course.
On Sept. 30, 2020, the Springers headed for the hospital in their hometown of Dallas for a scheduled induction. The car was void of any excitement about becoming first-time parents. The Springers hadn’t even purchased a car seat for the ride home. There was no need, or so they had been told. After some complications with the induction, Sage was born by C-section on Oct. 1. No one could have known what a fighter Sage would turn out to be.
She weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces at birth. The attending doctors and nurses wiped her off and laid her on Emma’s chest. They wanted her mother to hold her for the few breaths they expected her to take. There was no planned medical intervention; there wasn’t even an oxygen mask in the delivery room. “After she laid on my chest she just took this small, raspy breath, then another one, and then another one,” says Emma. “Hayden and I just started crying; we couldn’t believe what was happening. It was a miracle.”
Sage kept breathing. An hour went by, then a day. This delicate child continued to fight for her life. There was still no medical intervention; Sage did it all on her own. When the doctors deemed mother and baby were ready to go home, a frantic shopping spree ensued. Hayden and Emma sent their mothers to Buy Buy Baby to stock up on diapers, clothes and other necessities. Preparing for a baby’s arrival can be overwhelming, even with months of planning; the Springers had six hours. With a feeding tube inserted in her nose and against all odds, Sage came home.
Each day she continued to defy the odds, and Emma and Hayden embarked on a quest to get her help. For families dealing with Trisomy 18, there is little information on what to expect medically, financially and logistically. Emma and Hayden scoured social media and made a countless number of phone calls. They discovered that Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas, was one of the few hospitals that would be willing to do the heart surgery Sage needed, but the doctors first wanted the baby to get stronger.
The new family settled into a routine as best they could, and Hayden started practicing again. Sage was doing as well as could be expected. On Dec. 27, Emma and Hayden were sitting in the parking lot of Trophy Club outside Dallas with Sage in the back. Hayden had finished practicing and Emma was dropping off clothes for him to work out in. Sage began to cry and, despite her parents’ best efforts, was inconsolable for several hours. The Springers became increasingly frantic. Phone calls to their doctor ended with advice to take Sage to the emergency room. Emma did not feel comfortable with the care plan proposed in the ER, so the following day she made a beeline to Dell Children’s. Mother and daughter spent the next seven days at the hospital. Emma had told Hayden many times he could not delay his dream indefinitely, so he was back on the road.
On Jan. 7, 2021, four months after her birth, Sage underwent heart surgery. Hayden and Emma did not see her until 15 hours later. Despite weighing less than 10 pounds, Sage survived the intense surgery. She spent 70 days in the hospital, continuing to battle and recover. The Springers stayed in the Ronald MacDonald House, reserved to the families of long-term patients. They did shifts so one of them was by Sage’s side nearly every minute. A permanent feeding tube replaced her temporary one, and she received a tracheostomy to help with her breathing.
Sage wasn’t expected to survive childbirth and she wasn’t supposed to leave the hospital. She was not expected to survive at home or to get through such a grueling surgery. She did all of that, and now she was going home again. Her health has been good since the surgery, and she has continued to slowly gain weight, now tipping the scales at upwards of 12 pounds. But challenges remain. She must be fed every four hours, and her tracheostomy tube has to be cleaned twice daily. A brutal uncertainty still hangs over the Springers. “We don’t have milestones, we have inch-stones,” Emma says. “We have found ourselves talking about when she is 2 or 3 or 10, but always in the back of our mind we know that may not happen.” They Springers have learned to cherish every moment, no matter how small.
There is almost no research on Trisomy 18 babies, so the future is cloudy at best. One study puts the life expectancy of a patient who has completed the heart surgery, like Sage, at around 16 years. A common cold or a small infection can have dire consequences. The Springers continue to live day-to-day. Their faith is a big part of who they are. “There have been so many miracles in her short life,” says Hayden. “We are already very blessed.”
Emma and Hayden are in the process of starting a foundation to help families with children affected by Trisomy 18. They want to give others the help they did not have: finding hospitals, financial aid and, most important, emotional support. Emma combs through social media locating families of Trisomy 18 babies, reaching out to let them know they are not alone. She is building a community of families for families. It has become her calling.
Last month I talked with Hayden after he posted a 69 at the Byron Nelson Monday. It wasn’t good enough, but he left encouraged, saying, “It’s really close.” He then drove to Oklahoma and went 66-66-70-66 at the All-Pro event, tying for third and making $5,000. After his expenses—including the $1,000 entry fee— Hayden pocketed around $3,500. Any time you end up in the black at a mini-tour event it has been a good week. The third-place finish moved Hayden into the top 20 on the All-Pro Tour money list. It is one of the few mini-tours that holds four-day events, and it regularly has fields with more than 150 players in it. To be in the top 20 on the money list speaks to Hayden’s potential. He then made the drive home. The mini-tour grind is hard under the best of circumstances, but all it takes is one breakthrough to potentially change a career. Springer’s came at the U.S. Open qualifier at the Dallas Athletic Club. The longest day in golf is supposed to be 36 holes in one day, but Springer’s qualifier stretched into a second day due to five weather delays. It was hard to get momentum going, but he persevered, which is no surprise—that is the Springer way. Despite all the starts and stops, Hayden shot a closing-round 68 and then had an agonizing wait to see if that would be good enough for one of the 10 tickets to the Open. It was … by a single stroke. Hayden Springer was headed to Torrey Pines. He knows the U.S. Open is both a huge opportunity and a daunting challenge. The last eight months have given Hayden plenty of perspective. “I still get angry on the golf course at times,” he says, “but when I get home, it’s hard to stay mad.”
Getting to the PGA Tour is a monumental task for any player; trying to do it while helping to care for a special needs child seems unfair. Emma works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a neurosurgical nurse, then comes home and takes care of her baby. When she finally goes to sleep Hayden does the feedings and trach cleanings and changes all the diapers. Finding time to practice and work out can be a challenge. All the while there is the stress of knowing that a simple infection might mean the end of Sage’s young life. “I’m so proud of what he has done because I see every day what he and Emma go through,” Hayden’s dad, Neyland, told me after the Byron Nelson qualifier.
Spouses are the unsung heroes of mini-tour life. As a player chases his dream, his partner is the one who must keep everything together. There is the financial strain and the emotional stresses of golf’s ups and downs, as well as the loneliness that comes with so much of a relationship conducted over FaceTime. Now add in the graveyard shift as a nurse during a pandemic and a child with a high-risk medical condition, and it’s clear that Emma has as much heart as her daughter. “She is the strongest woman I know,” says Hayden. “I’m not sure how she does it, honestly.”
I have struggled with how to finish this article. Maybe that’s because so many people have already tried to tell this family how their story is supposed to conclude. But all of the Springers fight to continue their story. That is its own kind of happy ending.
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