Brian and Caitlin Veitz met in college. He works in the oil fields and she's a substitute teacher. They've been married for nearly five years and are pregnant with their first baby, Kieran Jane Veitz.
But life just hit what Caitlin Veitz calls “a speed bump.”
When Caitlin Veitz was 20 weeks along in the pregnancy, the couple had their first ultrasound at 9 a.m. with an appointment to follow at 11:30 a.m.
In between appointments, they went shopping for girl outfits and "basked in the news of knowing."
Then, their doctor told them there were chest abnormalities as he pointed to the ultrasound screen.
"Her heart's outside her chest,” Caitlin Veitz said.
“Yes,” the doctor replied.
Ectopia cordis is a rare condition in which the heart is located partially or completely out of the chest. Kieran's ventricles are outside her chest, but her atrium is inside.
"Basically what happens is very early on, the membrane that attaches the heart to the chest wall fails so that the heart is kind of allowed to go wherever. And in her case, it ended up just below the sternum," Caitlin Veitz said. "It's actually in a good place because it's easier to move it back into the right position from where it is right now."
Because of its rarity, however, there isn't a lot of reassuring research available.
"I didn't even know something like this could happen," Caitlin Veitz said. "Then you find out how rare it is, and, for the longest time, you wake up and go: Was that just a bad dream?"
Brian Veitz said having to repeat the news to friends and family was difficult.
"It's easy to dwell on something so much, something this terrible," Brian Veitz said.
Working in Williston has been hard, he said, but also a welcome distraction.
"You can't let it just cripple you. You let it cripple you, then you're not living any more," Brian Veitz said. "You still have to do your everyday stuff: Go to work, take care of chores, shopping, whatever."
Since Caitlin Veitz will be going through a scheduled cesarean section, she will go to Mayo Clinic a month before her due date, April 7.
"If everything goes well, everything will be fine. And we'll bring her home, and she'll grow into a normal child," Caitlin Veitz said. "It's that 'What if' that is unsettling, but you try not to focus on it too much. Otherwise, you're just burying yourself under the pressure and the weight of it."
Once Kieran is born, doctors will stabilize her, and, if there are no other major issues, operate.
"Their main goal is to get everything back in and cover it up with skin and tissue grafts," said Caitlin Veitz, explaining that she has been told the two months after Kieran's birth are the most critical.
"Every day is going to be a milestone for that first two months or so,” Caitlin Veitz said.
When Kieran is about 6 months old, doctors will begin to reconstruct her chest.
"She's doing what babies do at her gestational age. So everything, other than the placement of her heart, is normal. I just hope that if everything else stays normal, then she's coming home with us. And that's what helps drive me to believe that this is completely possible," Caitlin Veitz said.
The Veitzes said they have good feelings about their cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Joseph Dearani, from their meetings with him and his prior experience: He helped separate a pair of conjoined twins, one of whom needed her heart placed back inside her chest. The twins are 7 years old now and live in Mandan. Caitlin Veitz said she has not yet been in contact with their mother but plans to meet with her soon.
"My confidence with him is very high," Caitlin Veitz said.
Since the news, the Veitzes said family, friends and community members have given much-appreciated support and charity.
"We've had donations from friends and family on my side that she's never met and I haven't seen for 10-plus years," Brian Veitz said. "It's been amazing."
In every other respect, Kieran is a healthy baby, according to the Veitzes. She's meeting all of her gestational milestones, and she's so active she nearly kicked a bowl off Caitlin's stomach one day.
"It's just a little speed bump. Everything else just seems so perfect that sometimes I forget that we have to go through this,” Caitlin Veitz said. “And that's what's great about it."
Caitlin Veitz says she still aims to enjoy her otherwise normal pregnancy.
She said by acting as any other baby would, Kieran reminds her that it's not over.
"Having people that believe in her and are sending her stuff to wear for when she comes home has been really cool, too," Caitlin Veitz said. "You have these people that 100 percent fully believe she's going to get through this."