Story by Lisa Anderson
Life rarely delivers what we expect of it; usually, we take the punches and move on. But every now and then, it stops us in our tracks as it did for Leighton Okus on October 5, 2018.
“I had chronic hip pain from ballet. When you’re a dancer you have a different level of pain threshold. I literally bled through my point shoes on stage one time—where you could see the blood on my shoes, and I didn’t know it. The show must go on!”
After researching a functional medicine procedure and speaking with individuals for whom it had been successful, Leighton thought the best-case scenario would be a reductions in left hip pain. She thought the worst-case scenario was it wouldn’t help her, and she would spend her life taking too much ibuprofen. “But what it did, instead, was change my whole life,” she says, while fighting back tears.
“I started ballet when I was eight. I think, probably, just because of my life here in Ocala, I’m synonymous with ballerina.”
Leighton is known for working with local photographers, showing up at the boxing gym with her hair in a bun after teaching ballet lessons, teaching barre classes at ONE Hot Yoga, and now in the medical community.
She grew up dancing at a Christian dance studio called Dance Divine, where she would go on to teach for 12 years after college. “What I loved the most about ballet was equal parts athleticism and the structure of it, but at the same time, the goal was always to be graceful.
“The school where I grew up dancing really, really, really focused and drove home being healthy. We talked about the prevalence of eating disorders in ballet. No one skirted the issue. We talked about what was healthy for us to eat, in order to maintain our athleticism. We would have honest conversations with our teachers about what we were eating and if we were feeding our bodies well, because it was very important to our teacher that she have a culture of healthy dancers. I appreciate it now as an adult. I appreciate it now that I have a daughter, who is in sixth grade. It paved the way for me to be able to have those kinds of conversations, because I always had them growing up.”
At the age of 16, Leighton realized her body was not the standard for professional dancers at that time. So, she decided to give her body a break. She already had some minor injuries (e.g. lost toenails), and by 18, she had a bunionectomy. She returned to dance at 19, when she began teaching at Dance Divine.
“I had my children when I was very young. I had my first son at 21, my second son at 24, and my daughter when I was 27 [years old]. I think that my hip pain became something that was a concern after I had kids,” Leighton says thoughtfully.
By her early thirties, the pain couldn’t be ignored as easily. She tried several methods of treatment from anti-inflammatories to massage therapy. Most of the things she tried helped some, but nothing was long term. “Ultimately, I had arthritis in the joint. What I did not do was quit training like I was going to the Olympics,” she chuckles.
In 2018, Leighton researched a European functional medicine procedure and opted to give it a try. It would either help reduce the pain or not. “What happened after was not …,” she takes a long pause as the emotions overwhelm her. “Within 24 hours, I couldn’t walk.”
She knew immediately something was not right. Her hip joint became frozen. “The practice where it happened had not seen this type of reaction before. They treated me for pain, [but] it only got worse. On the sixth day I went to the hospital. I had a systemic staph infection. It was resistant to medication, and ultimately became a septic infection that encapsulated in my hip joint.”
Leighton describes it as a plot in a movie where a freak accident occurs. The infection would simply not leave her body. “It was really one of the hardest, darkest, scariest things. I was at West Marion (Ocala Health) for almost a month. I had really wonderful care there. I have thought, over the years, how much I wish I could go back and find my nurses to tell them thank you.”
In addition to the staph infection, Leighton had a very rare bacteria called actinomycosis. Her doctor reached out to his medical network across the country to discuss her case. One of the bright spots for her was note written on the white board in her room that read “ballerina.”
Leighton finally had surgery to flush her hip joint, on November 7, 2018, and she was able to return home three days later, free of infection. She remained on antibiotics for “what felt like eternity.” Coupled with the strong medications she received for pain and her PICC line, Leighton’s body required a long time to heal.
She noticed her hip pain was completely gone after the surgery, and she began to think maybe the whole ordeal was a blessing in disguise. “A couple months after [the surgery] it came back with a vengeance, but I really didn’t want to have anything else done, ever. I didn’t want to care for it, because I was too afraid–” Her words cut off, as she begins to choke up with emotion. “You play out all the scenarios in your head.”
At last, she went for an MRI in late 2019, and her doctor told her she would require a hip replacement. This was something she thought wouldn’t happen until her fifties, but now her second hip replacement will be in her fifties.
The surgery was postponed until September 2021 due to COVID-19. “Twenty twenty-one was probably one of the hardest years, physically. My hip pain was at an all time high. It made it hard for me to function, hard for me to train [or] sleep. I sprained my left ankle in January, then I broke my right heel in March.”
Both incidents were weird accidents that took a long time to heal. “Chronic pain is just awful. It changes who you are. It makes everything a bit more aggravating. It makes everything more exhausting. Now, I have no hip pain. I will not have pain in that joint until it’s time to get a new one.”
The month in and out of the hospital in 2018 and her recent hip surgery really changed Leighton’s perspective on life, and she feels it’s for the better. A fighter from the beginning, a little hip surgery won’t stop this ballerina. “The goal is that I’ll be able to dance again. I can do a little. Almost daily, I try a little something, but I promised my doctor I wouldn’t overdo it,” she says with a mischievous smile.