Teen undergoes revolutionary surgery which sees her foot removed and refitted backwards
The hobbies we chose as teenagers can often develop into beloved passions, which in turn help to mold us into the adults we become in later life. Very often we are inundated with stories about people whose life-long passions eventually lead them to a greater success. In fact, I only pursued a career in writing because I enjoyed fan-fiction so much as a teenager.
But imagine having your greatest passion torn away from you in an instant by something you couldn't even control. Imagine the devastation you would inevitably feel after being told that the one thing you felt you were good at was no longer an attainable career path for you.
Unfortunately, there are numerous conditions which are life-altering, and, more often than not, they are life-altering in the worst possible way.
Few people know this better than 14-year-old Emma Neagu, who had her young life turned upside down after doctors found something potentially fatal growing inside her body.
After a series of hospital visits, Emma was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in 2016. The teenager, of Toronto, Canada, was terrified it would mean she could no longer pursue the hobby she had loved since she was little: gymnastics.
However, after a malignant tumor had grown to the size of an orange directly above her right knee, doctors were forced to remove much of her leg. But thanks to modern medicine, the teenager was able to continue with the sport she loved, thanks to a revolutionary surgery that saw doctors remove her foot and refit it backward.
After Emma was offered the groundbreaking procedure, called rotationplasty, doctors insisted it would give the aspiring gymnast greater mobility, as the reversed ankle joint essentially acts as the new knee joint.
Despite the fact Emma knew it looked odd, she was keen to go through with the procedure, saying: “It looked strange, but it meant my leg would still be very functional.”
She continued: “It involved amputating part of my leg, before reattaching the ankle to the femur backward, to act as a new knee. I was nervous, but I went into that operation knowing I’d made the best choice for me.”
Before Emma's rotationplasty went ahead, she had to undergo intensive chemotherapy. She chose this as an alternative to limb salvage surgery which would mean removing the affected bone and replacing it with a metal implant.
“With the limb salvage surgery, my leg would look the same as before, as if nothing had happened, but I would have limited mobility," she explained. “The rotationplasty definitely suited me better."
So how did her incredible heartwarming journey to health and wellness begin? Well, before December 2015, her life couldn't have been any more different. In fact, she was the picture of health. But then she suddenly started experiencing intermittent pain in her right knee. Initially, she thought had injured herself practicing.
Unfortunately, some weeks after, Emma, who lives with her mom Claudia, 41, and dad Emil, 57, fell and severely hurt her knee after performing a maneuver. She explained, “I’d fallen before and it’d only hurt for a second or two. But this was different."
“It was so painful and swelled up so it looked all bumpy. I later found out I’d landed almost right where the tumor was.”
She grew increasingly concerned when the swelling continued for days after it had begun, and so Emma decided to visit her local doctor. After a checkup, however, she was told she had simply sustained a sports injury. Trusting the doctor's opinion, she carried on training. “The word ‘cancer’ literally never crossed my mind,” she added.
Some weeks later, the pain continued and Emma knew she had to go back to the doctor, who performed a scan for further examination. When the results came through at Toronto’s Sickkids Hospital, it was revealed she had osteosarcoma.
“They didn’t outrightly use the word cancer, but my mom understood what they were saying and explained it to me,” she said. “They said to me that it wasn’t an injury, or because of gymnastics, and that it wasn’t my fault, nor had I done anything to cause it.
“I was praying they were wrong, because before that, I’d been the healthiest kid. It was very hard to hear I’d lose my long brown hair, too, and I was terrified what it’d mean for my gymnastics. I thought I’d never do a flip again.”
In March 2016, further tests revealed to Emma and her family that the cancer had now spread to one of her lungs. It was then that the young gymnast started her treatment, which involved nine months of chemotherapy.
This, of course, meant that she experienced a great deal of nausea, mouth sores, headaches, and hair loss. She also had an operation to remove cancerous spots from her lungs, in addition to the 12-hour rotationplasty operation, which was also carried out at Sickkids.
In an interview, Emma recalled this about the procedure: “I remember having surgeons crowding around me, but they were being very gentle and kind. I was showing them how I wanted my leg to be when I came round.
“Waking up, I knew what to expect and had accepted my new leg. It looked weird, but it was the right choice for me.”
After an intense five nights spent recovering in hospital, Emma was finally sent home. Her mobility was limited and she was wheelchair-bound for a while. All she could do was wait for her prosthetic leg to be fitted.
She added: “I couldn’t put any weight on it at first, so there was a lot of resting. It took a lot to get used to the fact part of my leg was backward. Even pointing and flexing my toes was hard to wrap my mind around.”
In September 2016, she received her prosthesis and the dedicated gymnast spent the next year and a half reintroducing herself to her biggest passion in life: gymnastics.
Emma finished her chemo in December 2016, and couldn't have been happier when she was finally declared cancer-free. Unfortunately, it definitely wasn't plain-sailing after that. Sadly, just a year later, she relapsed when a routine scan showed a growth of spots on her lungs. She is currently in remission following another surgery which saw a small part of her lung removed.
What's even more incredible, however, is that Emma is back to performing the same impressive tricks she was able to do before losing her leg, and is now using her passion as a way of way of encouraging others not to give up on their dreams. She does this mainly by posting videos and pictures of her journey on her Instagram page.
In the video below, Emma performs her very first cartwheel - one year, one week and four days following her surgery:
“I want other people to know that, so long as you believe and put your mind to it, you can achieve anything you want”, Emma said.
Emma’s mom, Claudia, added: “I will never forget the doctor explaining the surgery choices and Emma opting for the rotationplasty. I said, ‘But they can save both legs. Why are you choosing to cut one off?’ As her mom, the idea scared me to think about.
“But she told me, ‘I don’t need two identical legs. I just want to be able to do what I love.’ The doctors were all very supportive of her choice, too.”
Claudia added: “Emma was so positive throughout her treatment. I’ve never seen anyone handle something that difficult like it."
“The relapse was emotional, and she now has a lot of anxiety around scans, but her incredible mindset has got her through this. From the start, she was determined to fight. And that’s what she has done.”
It's incredibly inspirational that this young woman was so determined to be able to continue pursuing her dream that she was even willing to have part of her leg amputated. It just goes to show how big an impact our dreams and passions have on us and our overall happiness.
We wish Emma nothing but the best for her future in gymnastics.