After unimaginable heartbreak, teenager finds her feet again
Inside a brick-walled, downtown dance studio in Youngstown, Ohio, 14-year-old Emily Caguiat puts on her ballet slippers and turns on the music.
Gliding across the floor, she practices the dance moves she’s performed in “The Nutcracker” for the past six years. The eighth-grader spends much of her free time here in the Ballet Western Reserve studio.
Meanwhile, the faint scars on her legs signify how far she’s come.
A holiday tragedy
It was five days before Christmas in 2003 when a car crash just a few miles away from home forever changed the Caguiats’ world.
Emily, then 1 ½, and her sister, Hannah, 5, were riding with their mom, Tani, who was on her way out to do holiday shopping. As they slowed to a stop at a traffic light in Ypsilanti, a speeding car slammed into them.
The next thing Tani remembers is waking up to unimaginable heartbreak at University Hospital.
The impact of the crash took Hannah's life. Eighteen-month-old Emily was in the pediatric intensive care unit at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital with two fractured femurs. Tani herself was recovering from a blood clot in the base of her brain.
“It has been a long journey of healing and remembering, and as Emily grows we process it in different ways,” Tani said.
After being stabilized in the Mott PICU, Emily underwent surgery with a team led by pediatric orthopedic surgeon Clifford Craig, M.D. Craig worked to repair the 18-month-old’s tiny, fractured bones, inserting plates to help bridge them back together.
“It was a pretty major repair on such a little kid,” Tani said. “We were sure she’d heal but didn’t know how strong she’d be and worried about what kind of long-term damage she’d have.
“Dr. Craig was so focused and so confident. We could tell he cared and was going to do whatever he could to make her OK. We really needed that kind of faith in the moment. We will never forget it.”
The family spent the holidays at the hospital. Emily was able to go home the day after Christmas, but spent the next month in a full body cast from her arms down to her toes with just a small hole for her diaper.
“Overcoming any traumatic injury is difficult, and she made as good a recovery as we could have hoped for,” Craig said. “If you took an X-ray today you probably wouldn’t be able to tell she ever had fractures.”
As Emily recovered, undergoing another surgery at Mott a year later to remove the plates, the family decided to start a new chapter to begin to get back to a new normal.
Tani’s husband, Jonathan Caguiat, was offered a position at Youngstown State University and the three of them moved to Ohio.
By the time Emily was 3, she was just as active as any preschooler — known for running everywhere, riding trikes and scooters.
She was drawn to a new challenge at age 8 after seeing Ballet Western Reserve perform “Snow White.” She asked her mom if she could try dancing.
Her first dance recital followed not too long after.
“She just fell in love with performing,” Tani said. “I thought she would be really nervous, but she loved it. She cried when it was over because she wanted to keep dancing.”
Emily has been dancing ever since, trying ballet, modern and tap, with her “Nutcracker” roles over the years including a mouse, candy cane, angel and party child.
“When you’re dancing you can be someone else and go to a different place,” Emily said. “That’s what I love most about it.”
And every year, Tani sends Dr. Craig a holiday card with one of Emily’s recent dance pictures.
“Thank you for fixing her legs when she was a baby. Today, she’s an avid dancer!” Tani has written.
“We just wanted to let him know she’s not only doing fine, but she’s thriving. We owe him a lot,” Tani said.
Craig says he looks forward to the cards.
“As a physician, it’s extremely rewarding to be able to see how well she’s doing,” he said. “It means a lot that they take the time to keep in touch and send me updates even 13 years later.”
Today, the family, which also includes son Max, 9, makes the most of every minute together, recently taking a two-week cross-country road trip to the West Coast.
And though the anniversary of the accident can sometimes be painful, Tani says watching Emily on stage performing is also a reminder of resilience.
“I can’t explain it,” she said of watching her daughter. “We lost so much in that accident. But it’s incredible seeing Emily grow up to develop this passion. We feel so fortunate that she’s able to do what she loves.”
For more stories like this one, check out the Michigan Health Blog.