Dancer Feature

Holding On to Hope - a dancer's inspiring story of illness, recovery, and perserverence

10:58 AM

On Thursday February 16 of 2017, Hope Owens sat down in her dance class. This was highly unusual. The next few months would be one of the hardest times for her and her family.

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In a few months, she went from having oxygen tubes and physical therapy and just to be able to stand, to getting a scholarship at the Dancer Palooza convention and being given a solo in her studio's production of The Nutcracker.

I got a chance to talk to Hope on the way to her rehearsal on Saturday a few weeks ago.

I asked Hope and her mother, Tara, to give me a basic run-down of what transpired.

When she sat down in dance class, Tara (who is a dance teacher) was highly concerned. It was unlike Hope to give less than 100% in class, and very unusual for her to sit.

They went to the doctor, just in case. She had flu-like symptoms, but no temperature. The strep test came back negative. She was told to go home and rest.

The morning after her birthday, which was very soon after visiting the doctor, she got up from bed and said to her mother, "I can't breathe."

"It was so unlike her," Tara said. "We went to urgent care and were given antibiotics and an inhaler."

On the following Monday, Hope didn't go to school. She seemed worse than before, so they went to their pediatrician who sent them to the hospital immediately to get X-Rays.

Reflecting on the events, Hope and Tara agreed that seemed to be the turning point; everything went downhill from there, and it escalated so quickly it was hard to keep up.

An ambulance was called. Hope was sedated, plugged with needles, put through tests, put on a ventilator, an incubator, and treated with antibiotics. She was on meds around the clock.

It all seemed to revolve around her lungs. "She was like a dog panting," Tara said.

And through it all... smiles.

While she was sedated but not totally asleep, Hope wrote back and forth to her mom on a piece of paper to communicate. She had a tube in her throat to help her breathe and get enough oxygen, so she was unable to speak. She realized she wouldn't be able to compete the upcoming weekend, and wrote to her mom, "put someone strong in my place."

Hope spent a long time in the hospital constantly being treated by a variety of doctors, but didn't have a turn-around until they finally brought a lung doctor to look at her. He diagnosed her with Reactionary Pneumonia. She was put on steroids, and had a high-flow nasal machine put in so she could breathe.

Hope said one of the hardest parts of being in the hospital was not being able to eat real food. Because she was 14 at the time, she was in the children's hospital, and many kids can't handle food while in there. "It was a battle every time," they agreed. The doctors finally allowed her to eat, after making sure she could properly swallow, and watching her slowly eat applesauce.

Since she seemed to be recovering, the doctors wanted to see if they could send her home over spring break. They did an X-ray of the chest, and found a pneumothorax (large black space on the X-Ray) where her lung had collapsed. They tried to allow the lung to fill back up naturally by using air, but because she had been on the steroids, it had made her lungs stiff, and had to have a surgery to lift the lung and insert an air tube.

Every day they did an X-Ray of the lung to check if it had lifted itself up. "Our day was determined by that Giraffe X-ray," Tara sighed, then explained; "We were in a children's hospital. Everything was decorated to be less scary. Our portable X-Ray machine had a giraffe on it."

Later, they clamped the tube in her lung, hoping that the lung would lift itself up and recoup.

It took 13 days of being on that tube before the lung lifted, and on March 30th, Hope was able to walk out of the hospital.

I asked Hope what some of her biggest struggles were once she got out of the hospital. She replied right away with "Stairs. My stamina was completely gone." She did say that when she went back to school she was allowed to use the elevator, which helped a lot during the early parts of her recovery. She said one of her biggest victories was being able to run up the stairs, which happened just a few weeks ago.

When I asked her, "At what point did you start doing physical therapy to get your strength back," she and her mom struggled to answer, explaining that even while in the hospital, she would tap, do plies, stretch, and do her best to dance. Almost immediately the hospital sent a PT to work with her.

"I tapped through the bad times," she said.

I also asked her how soon did she return to dance. "I went to class the day I got home... Warm-up, stretch, leaps and turns, just some stuff."

Soon after being cleared, she attended a convention, where she was prepared to sit out if necessary, but she managed to get through all the classes, with some breaks, and even win a scholarship for her tap. Miss Ella had saved her a spot in her ballet dance, which she performed successfully, though she opted for flat instead of pointe shoes.

Every class at convention was a struggle. Hope was frustrated that she couldn't dance like her old self. She had to sit out sometimes and take breaks, but her tapping toes still worked! She was awarded a scholarship and we couldn't have been more surprised and more proud!

In regards to missing school, Hope explained that she just studied a lot, and worked really hard. She'd always been a good and dedicated student, so when she went back to school, her teachers were gracious in allowing her to take tests, but not doing all the missed homework.

When I asked about her experiencing depression, she was insistent she was the most optimistic one in her family. "I didn't experience depression at all," she insisted. Her catch phrase was "Hoping with Optimism." She said her mom struggled with some depression, and there were definitely some tough times. She said, "Some days I felt like I would never get out of the hospital."

She did a lot of art therapy (the benefits of art are never-ending!). She painted with watercolors and acrylics, did sketches, etc and it was little things like art that would give her something to look forward to each day. She also looked forward to hanging out with the therapy dogs.

She also held tight to scripture verses. "When you're praying, you ask for something, and you believe you'll receive it, it will be granted."

I asked her, "If you could go back and change anything, at all, what would you change?" Hope's answer surprised me; "I would have asked for fruit sooner." I thought to myself, fair point. Hospital food sucks and nobody wants candy when they're sick.

Hope and Tara both reflected on the fact that her illness brought so many people together that it was mind-blowing. "DTN was so loving and supporting," Tara said. "Teams at competitions were dedicating pieces to her." An artist in Australia mailed Hope a pair of hand-painted decorated pointe shoes. People from all over the world heard about her story and sent socks, bracelets, cards, goody-bags, and girly stuff. People at home sent food. "We had home-cooked meals almost every night."

Hope with a Therapy Dog

"One woman sent us warm cookies and cold milk!" Hope said, excited.

Tara even met people in the nail salon who had randomly heard her story via a "friend of a friend" and were praying for her and for Hope.

But one of the hardest parts was fitting back into her life. "It felt like I was gone, and life just... went on without me."

Some of her long-time childhood friends were cold to her upon her return, as if they had "moved on." Her team that seemed so supportive before, several months later, they were back to the drama and the pettiness. "It's not an 'everyone will be nice to me forever' card," Hope said.

Fully Recovered
Hope did have a hard time reconnecting with her older sister, but they've both continued to grow closer to Christ, and to each other through Hope's recovery process.

"The doctors kept telling me I wouldn't be able to do this, and do that..." Hope said.

Her mom pipped in with, "I kept saying in response, 'you don't know Hope.'"

"The whole experience has matured me, and strengthened my faith... I have so much appreciation and love for God, and I experience thankfulness."

(Hope's first day back to class)

(Hope walks in and surprises her dance class)

(Hope killing it in class)

All photos and videos used with permission.

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