When Surgery Is Your Only Option

(photo by Vikki Sloviter)

For dancers, the decision to undergo surgery can be frightening. The time spent in recovery seems like an eternity when it keeps you from pursuing your passion. But as 14-year-old Maya Wheeler learned, dancing with injuries isn't worth the pain—or the damage it can cause. A student at Philadelphia's The Rock School for Dance Education, Wheeler has undergone two surgeries to remove extra bones behind both of her ankles. Here, she shares her journey in and out of the operating room, as told to Kat Richter.


I was 8 when it all started. My left ankle was hurting in ballet class, so I began asking my teachers if I could sit out during jumps. At first, they didn't believe me—they just thought I wanted to get out of certain exercises. But the pain wasn't letting up. Finally, one of my teachers suggested I see a physical therapist. “It could be tendonitis," the therapist said, showing me a few calf and ankle stretches. But then her voice lowered to a whisper: “Or it could be an os trigonum."

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I could tell from her tone that it was something scary. Since I'd started dancing at age 6, I'd never had an injury. My training at The Rock School was intense, and I didn't know how to cut back. I told myself it was just tendonitis and kept stretching.

Soon, my ankle hurt any time I pointed my foot, jumped or did just about anything strenuous. When I couldn't take the pain any longer, I went to a doctor. After an X ray, the doctor confirmed my worst fear: My symptoms indicated os trigonum. An extra piece of cartilage between my Achilles tendon and my heel had hardened into bone. The doctor explained that this syndrome was common for dancers. I knew he was trying to be reassuring, but I was still nervous about what this meant for me—and the career I hoped to have one day. He was up front about my options: I needed surgery to take it out.

By this time—about a year after my symptoms had worsened—it was performance season, and Nutcracker rehearsals were heating up. On top of all that, I had started preparing for my first time competing at the Youth America Grand Prix finals in NYC. I didn't want to stop training—but I could feel my extra bone crunching with every move.

Maya at the 2014 Youth America Grand Prix (photo by Vikki Sloviter)

I was 10 when I had my first surgery at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Two hours and four incisions later, the extra bone was gone. It turned out that the bone had fractured in the time I continued dancing, which had caused even more irritation and swelling.

Before the surgery, I was told that because I was young, the recovery process would be relatively quick. I stayed home from school for a couple of days, and I could walk without crutches (though wearing a boot) after two weeks. I worked with a physical therapist for three months, who taught me lots of Thera-Band exercises and other ways to rebuild my foot muscles, like picking up marbles with my toes. I had to sit out of ballet classes completely for four weeks, but I gradually worked my way up to pointe, and I was back to performing within a few months.

A year and a half later, however, the pain was back—this time in my right ankle. I didn't know what to do. I was scheduled to compete at the YAGP finals in NYC that April. I had also been accepted to Boston Ballet School's summer intensive. I tried to weigh my options: If I skipped YAGP to have surgery again, I'd miss out on that performance experience in NYC. But if I waited until after YAGP, I wouldn't be strong enough for Boston. And I definitely didn't want to miss that opportunity. Ultimately, I chose not to compete, and I was back in the operating room on Valentine's Day.

During the recovery from my second surgery, most of my classmates moved up into the next level. Surprisingly, the worst part for me wasn't not being able to dance—it was having to sit and watch my peers excel without me. My teachers would say, “Just take notes," but I didn't want to watch anymore. I wanted to scream back, “Why can't I just do it? I can do it in my boot!"

I felt left behind, but I'm glad I waited and made a full recovery. With a little extra work and lots of determination, I've caught up to my friends, and I even finished in the top 20 at the YAGP finals this year. I've learned that hurdles like os trigonum syndrome don't have to hold you back. And now that I'm dancing pain-free, I don't even think about it anymore. Instead, I'm on to my next challenge: one day landing a spot in my dream company, Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Os Trigonum Syndrome 101

The os trigonum is a bone growth behind the talus bone (ankle) that may be present at birth. “Os trigonum syndrome" refers to the deep, aching pain and swelling that develops due to repetitive stress on that area. Because os trigonum syndrome can mimic Achilles' tendonitis, X rays are helpful to differentiate between the two.

If you notice these symptoms, it's best to talk to a doctor or physical therapist, especially if the pain persists. Surgery isn't always necessary; other treatments include rest or anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling and pain. Above all, make sure your doctor or therapist knows the complexities of your dance training so he or she can work out a treatment plan tailored to you.

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