After Unimaginable Heartbreak, Finding Her Feet Again

Thirteen years after an accident killed her older sister and fractured her femurs, 14-year-old Emily’s love of dance has helped her family heal.

1:00 PM

Author | Beata Mostafavi


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.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

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 Christmas 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 Christmas 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 the University of Michigan hospital.

The impact of the crash had killed Hannah. 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 says.

Overcoming injury

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 says. "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 Christmas 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 says. "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.

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.
Tani Spielberg

Finding dance

By the time Emily was 3, she was just as active as any preschooler — known for running everywhere, riding trikes and scooters.

SEE ALSO: 'Superhero' Brothers Bonded by Rare XMEN Disease

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 remembers. "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 then, 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 says. "That's what I love most about it."

And every Christmas, Tani sends Dr. Craig a Christmas 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 says.

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 says. "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 holiday 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 says 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."


More Articles About: Children's Health CS Mott Children's Hospital Hospitals & Centers
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

This article is from the Health Lab digital publication.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

MichMedmedia@med.umich.edu

734-764-2220

Newsletter

Get a weekly digest of medical research and innovation, straight to your inbox.

Subscribe
Featured News & Stories pregnant stomach with yellow dots and blue undertone lab note
Health Lab
Few pregnant people who died of overdose, suicide in Michigan received proper treatment before death
A review of maternal deaths suggests most individuals had documented behavioral health conditions but only one-third received appropriate pharmacologic treatment before death
child looking at family outside of kitchen area
Health Lab
Encouraging spirituality in teens without forcing participation
Among parents who plan to attend religious services this holiday season, nearly half would insist their teen join even if they didn’t want to, a poll suggests.
Health Lab
Social media: Top setting tips to promote positive boundaries, mental health for young people
Experts share tech savvy ways to better manage and control social media use on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube for youth, teens and kids.
child cough sick parent with temp check
Health Lab
RSV: What parents should know
How you can prevent infection and look for more serious symptoms of RSV.
Mom and patient with doctor viewing brain waves
Health Lab
How deep brain stimulation helped a 10-year-old from having multiple seizures a day
DBS treatment has more commonly been used in adults with epilepsy but is now helping children like Rylan improve their quality of life. 
school traffic safety kid car orange
Health Lab
Parents worry school traffic is a danger for kids
Speeding and distracted drivers top list of concerns; some say those who don’t follow rules should face consequences.