Nicole’s Story: Dancing my way through pain

Nicole Zizzi dancer hip dysplasia PAO Thriving blog lead image
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICKEY WEST PHOTOGRAPHY

Dance is my life passion.

I’ve spent more than 15 hours a week dancing for most of my 26 years — except for a period of time the past few years, when hip pain forced me to stop.

We dancers usually don’t express our pain; in fact, we almost like to be in pain because it means we’re working hard and improving. So, when I woke up one morning two years ago and I couldn’t lift my left leg, I knew something was very wrong. This pain was too intense to ignore.

Beginning a long journey

Over the course of the next few months, I visited 10 different specialists, many of whom told me the pain was in my head. But I finally found a physical therapist who had worked in dance medicine and actually believed me. After working with her for a month with no progress, she suggested I make an appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital.

During my first appointment at Boston Children’s, Dr. Ellen Geminiani did a physical examination and ordered an MRI, which showed a small cyst in my iliopsoas as well as a possible tear of my labrum. I cried tears of relief because there was finally proof that the pain was not in my head.

I continued going to physical therapy and had four cortisone injections with Dr. Andrea Stracciolini, director of Boston Children’s Dance Medicine Section, hoping for a fix. But unfortunately, the pain persisted. Dr. Stracciolini scheduled a new scan, which showed a labral detachment tear as well as complicated growth in the cyst. She referred me to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Yi-Meng Yen for a surgical consult.

When I met with Dr. Yen, he explained that the tear was likely caused by my underlying hip dysplasia, and that without first addressing my abnormal hip structure, repairing my labrum would only be a temporary fix. He suggested I meet with orthopedic surgeon and hip preservation specialist Dr. Travis Matheney, who would be able to present me with better surgical options for my condition.

What is hip dysplasia?
This is a congenital condition in which the ball-and-socket joint of the hip does not develop properly. It can cause pain due to added stress on the soft cartilage that lines the hip socket, as well as strain to the hip cartilage and bone.

Pulled in a thousand different directions

At this time, I was also dealing with a kidney stone that took two separate surgeries to remove. All of this was happening while I was about to put on my first ever professional show for my dance company, Evolve Dynamicz. Needless to say, it wasn’t going to be an easy week.

On the opening day of our show, just a few hours before I was supposed to be at tech rehearsal, I met with Dr. Matheney. He was amazing, and talked to me like an equal as he explained my condition, the procedure and the outcome in terms that I could really understand. He reassured me that the end was in sight, and explained that he would perform a periacetabular osteotomy (PAO) surgery on my left hip that would help fix both my pain and overall hip structure.

What is a PAO?
A periacetabular osteotomy is an open surgery where a hip preservation orthopedic surgeon makes a series of cuts to the bone to rotate the hip socket, moving it into proper position and inserting screws to hold it in place.

After the consult, I went to tech rehearsal and the shows that weekend went perfectly. Things were finally falling into place.

In December, Dr. Matheney performed the PAO. My care team was so awesome that when it came time for me to leave the hospital four days later, I didn’t want to go. My nurses always kept me smiling with their positive energy throughout the whole experience. I also started seeing Kelsey Griffith at The Micheli Center and she helped me with all the mental stresses that come with being an injured dancer.

Nicole Zizzi Thriving dancing pose hip dysplasia PAO
PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN LADEN

Exactly two weeks after my PAO, I flew home to spend the holidays with my family. I started PT in January, while also going to classes at Northeastern full-time as a graduate student. I continued physical therapy two days a week for six months. Today, I am once again dancing without any pain.

What I’ve learned from this experience

My hip journey has been a long one, to say the least, but it has taught me a lot about life.

  1. Never doubt yourself. You are the owner of your body, and you know when something is not normal.
  2. Never let someone tell you what you are or are not feeling. You know yourself better than anyone else.
  3. The people who you surround yourself with are important. I built myself an incredible care team from my doctors, nurses, and physical therapists to my friends, family, and fellow dancers. On the days when it feels like the pain will never end, it makes all the difference to have people there for you to simply listen.
  4. No matter what you are going through, you should never give up. There is always a solution, even if it’s not the solution you had expected or wanted — there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

I am confident that no matter what I go through, I will never stop dancing my way through life.

Learn more about the Child & Young Adult Hip Preservation Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.