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Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Portrait of a Grateful Patient

Emily Leonard

Emily Leonard standing in ballet poseAs long as she can remember, Emily Leonard has loved to dance. From her beginnings in elementary school, the Redding native matured into a professional dancer and choreographer working in vibrant cultural hubs such as New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

So when a freak backyard accident broke her ankle and damaged its ligaments, the 24-year-old wasn’t just upset about complicating her boyfriend’s college graduation the following day, or missing the new dance work she was to premiere the day after. She also feared her career might be over.  

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Through her course of treatment Emily was referred to orthopaedic surgeon Mark Lee, who directs fellowship training for future trauma surgeons at UC Davis and researches ways to improve treatments for traumatic leg and ankle injuries.

After a surgical repair by Lee and months of careful rehabilitation, Emily has fully resumed her dancing. It’s pleased her family so much that several members have donated to support the surgeon’s research.

“The second I met Dr. Lee I knew everything was going to be okay,” Emily says. “He has a fantastic, positive personality that made me relax. He explained the surgical process in great detail and made sure every question was answered.

“He also encouraged and challenged me during my recovery. Most of all, he erased all my fear, and replaced it with determination and reassurance.”

At the time of the injury, there wasn’t much for Emily to go on except fear. During a friendly backyard softball game with friends, a dog unexpectedly crossed Emily’s path while sprinting between bases. She stumbled and found herself on the ground, in the most excruciating pain of her life.

“At the moment when I broke my ankle, my head flooded with fear, panic, and pain,” Emily says. “I hadn’t heard a crack, but I knew it was broken. On the way to the ER, I kept yelling ‘Why me?!’ because I was trying to fathom what the next portion of my life was going to be like.” 

Dance had always been a cornerstone. In high school Emily was accepted into the Enterprise Starship, an elite singing and dancing group that performed and competed all over North America. She majored in dance at the University of Oregon and upon graduation joined the staff at a progressive dance center in New York City. Later she moved to San Francisco and premiered her own choreography.

There was a lot to lose from an injury.

“I honestly never thought I would dance again, and I think that was probably one of the first questions I asked Dr. Lee,” Emily says. “Once he told me that I could still dance, I still had some fear for my career.  I was unsure if I would be able to do all I could do prior to my injury.  I was unsure, with taking so much time off, if I would be as flexible, as strong, as experienced.”

Emily spent a night in the hospital following her surgery and was required to stay off the limb for more than two months. After several weeks of physical therapy, she began noticing a difference in her strength, control, mobility and confidence. Four months from the operation she was jumping, running, and taking yoga classes.

“I will never forget my first time dancing again,” she says. “I held a rehearsal for a new dance work I was choreographing, and I felt right at home again.  It is truly amazing how our bodies heal.”

Today Emily considers herself fully recovered, and anticipates no long-term impact on her career. She recently performed in San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

“It took time to get there, and some days my ankle is a little more ‘tight’ than others, but it does not hold me back from any physical activity or level of movement,” she says.  

There’s also a silver lining.

“The injury has made me a stronger individual,” she says. “I know what it is like now to go from walking, running, jumping, and dancing hours and hours every day to being bedridden and unable to even stand. I look at my feet walking on the earth every day, and I think every time how grateful I am.”