A year and a half ago, then-13-year-old comp star Jaycee Wilkins was doing what she loved most: dancing nonstop. She was training full-time at her mother's studio, Club Dance, in Mesa, AZ; traveling to conventions and learning from master teachers; scoring commercial gigs, like dancing on Disney's "Shake it Up"; and winning titles, including Junior Female Best Dancer at The Dance Awards in 2015. But when pain in her hip became unbearable, she received an unsettling diagnosis that would dramatically alter her dance path.
For about a year, I experienced an annoying pain in my hip, on and off. I didn't think it was that big of a deal—all dancers have pain, and my mom and I just assumed it was in the soft tissue, or muscular. I did physical therapy and it helped, so I kept dancing. But it kept coming back. By October 2015, the pain was constant and so bad I couldn't dance at all. I knew something was wrong.
After seeing an orthopedic surgeon, I was diagnosed with Perthes disease. Perthes disease is a childhood disease that occurs when the blood flow to the femur bone is mysteriously cut off. The bone starts to die, and eventually collapses. I was shocked. Never in a million years would I have thought my bone was collapsing. Perthes disease is very rare—especially rare in teenage girls—and there weren't any surgeons in Arizona who were willing to treat it aggressively. They all just wanted to let the disease run its course. My mom decided that wasn't good enough.
We found a doctor in Florida who agreed to help treat my condition. The first step, which we did
in October 2015, was a process called "tunneling," which creates new, artificial ways for the blood vessels to carry blood into the bone, so that it stops dying.
The next procedure I had was fixator surgery, at the end of October. The goal of the fixator surgery was to completely pull the rounded head of the femur bone out of the hipbone socket by placing a metal structure both inside the hip socket and leg, and outside the body. That way, there's zero weight on the head of the femur. Once blood flow is restored, if there's no weight on the
femur, the bone can begin to heal itself. If the bone heals correctly, chances are good that you won't have any complications from the disease later in life. If it doesn't, Perthes patients can develop arthritis and often need hip replacements by the time they reach 30.
In February 2016, my X-rays and scans looked good and I was able to get my fixator off and start walking on crutches. A few months later, I was cleared to walk without crutches, and was told I'd be able to start dancing again in June. I was beyond excited. My mom even bought tickets for me to attend Stacey Tookey's Camp Protégé in Canada that summer. I was so looking forward to it.
A Bump in the Road
After only four days of full weight-bearing activity, though, my femur bone re-collapsed. We learned later that the middle of my
femur bone was still soft, and the outer shell wasn't hard enough yet. I was absolutely devastated. I locked myself in my room and cried all night. I had worked so hard for months and now I was back at the very beginning.
Jaycee with her fixator (Photo by Jake Joe Photography)
Treatment Round 2
The next day, my mom found Dr. Craveiro Lopes in Portugal. He's a leader in Perthes disease research and awareness, and wanted to move forward with a slightly different plan of treatment. In April 2016, I traveled to Portugal to have another fixator surgery. This time I was also treated with a bone-hardening medicine that's legal in Portugal, but isn't cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I ended up attending Stacey's dance camp after my second surgery. I spent the week mostly observing, but it was incredible. Stacey was so understanding, and let me do a modified solo in the performance, where I sat in a chair. It ended up being one of the best weeks of my whole life.
The Long Road Back
I got my second fixator taken off last August, and was in a Perthes brace full-time until the winter, so that my hip stayed in the right place. Now, I do physical therapy and therapy in the pool. I also go to the studio every single day to work on my stretches, and started taking a couple classes this past January. I'm trying to be as active as possible to give myself the best shot at recovery. I'm hoping to be able to compete a few numbers and dance full-time again this summer.
Dance was everything to me before my diagnosis, and it was really hard getting that taken away from me. I'd never broken any bones or even sprained an ankle. But you just have to keep pushing through and know that one day it'll get better. You have to take what life hands you and make the best of it.
This past year, I still traveled to conventions to see all of my friends and mentors. That's been a huge part of my healing process. I need to feel like I'm still involved, and like my life is still moving forward.
I'm eager to dance full-time again, but I'm prepared for the possibility that it won't be the same as before. My flexibility will never be what it was. I'll just have to learn to use my body in a different way, and I'm excited for that challenge. In the future, I'll always be involved in the dance world, whether that means living out my dream as a commercial dancer in L.A. or working as a choreographer. Dance will always be a huge part of my life, and my family's life, and no disease will ever change that.