Major back surgery didn’t stop Absegami senior Tara Payne from pursuing her dream

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Tara Payne was at the beach on Aug. 13, 2012, doing cartwheels and flips — the normal things a 14-year-old dance prodigy might do on a sunny summer day on the shoreline. After her final flip of the day she joked with her friends, saying, “well, that’s the last back flip I’m ever going to do.” And for all she knew that was a real possibility. Two days later she had major back surgery to correct scoliosis that had been wreaking havoc on her body. Less than three years later, what she thought might be the worst day of her life actually turned out to be the best. Progressively worse Tara was diagnosed with scoliosis around the age of 10, she said, but at the time she didn’t really comprehend what that meant. It was only when she started to hit puberty that she realized that something was very wrong with her body. “I’ve always had a very naturally flexible back. I could always do those weird contortion things, and I knew when those things started to hurt, my scoliosis was getting really bad,” said Tara, now a 17-year-old senior at Absegami High School. “It was very mild, but as I went through puberty and got taller, they say your scoliosis can either stop or just stay at a very small degree, or it can progress as you are growing. Mine didn’t stop, it just kept going.” As an eighth-grader, Tara was instructed by doctors to wear a back brace. But what eighth-grader ever follows doctors orders? “I refused to wear it because I was in eighth grade and when you are in eighth grade you think everybody is going to make fun of you. So, obviously, I was insubordinate to that,” Tara said. “They kept checking my scoliosis and it just kept getting worse and they said I needed to get surgery. I didn’t want the surgery because I didn’t feel like I needed it, but then I started getting pain and floating rib heads. I didn’t even know that was possible. And I started getting muscle spasms. Everything was just not working correctly. My breathing started getting impaired because my lungs were getting crushed.” Basically, if you looked at Tara from the back, about halfway up her back her spine was taking a right-hand turn. Not unlike a dogleg right on a golf course. Eventually, in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, Tara was forced to get the surgery done. It was a difficult time for her and mom Donna, who was there every step of the way. A pair of steel rods were inserted on either side of Tara’s spine, with screws holding them in place. The scar from the incision runs from the back of her neck down past the back of her rib cage. Tara Payne, a senior at Absegami High School, underwent major back surgery before her sophomore year. She didn't give up on her dream to become a dancer, however, and last week she found out she had been accepted into the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on scholarship. (Photos by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) Tara Payne, a senior at Absegami High School, underwent major back surgery before her sophomore year. She didn’t give up on her dream to become a dancer, however, and last week she found out she had been accepted into the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on scholarship. (Photos by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) “I actually walked right past her (after surgery) because it didn’t even look like her, she was so swollen. I spent five days in (Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children) sleeping on a cot next to her bed,” Donna Payne said. “It’s heartbreaking to see your child go through something like that and you can’t do that much for them. But she was determined. Before she even left the hospital she was on the floor doing splits. She wanted to get up and walk around. She was asking the doctor when she could start physical therapy. A month after her surgery she was doing physical therapy.” “I really wasn’t that scared. I don’t believe things until they are actually happening. The morning of my surgery my dad was bawling his eyes out and I was like, ‘dad, can you stop that?’ I just trusted my surgeon and I felt very comfortable,” Tara said. “For some reason, it didn’t come off as a big deal to me. I think it hit me when I woke up from surgery. My mom was holding up my new X-ray and I was like, ‘oh, my God, I have rods in my back!'” Donna Husta is a friend of Donna Payne, and her daughter, Jenny, has been friends with Tara since they were little kids frolicking in dance studios. Husta said she is continually amazed at the comeback Tara has made from such a dramatic surgery. “I remember when Donna showed me the picture of Tara’s spine and I thought, ‘oh, my God, she’s never going to dance again.’ It got progressively got worse. You could see she was in a lot of pain before her surgery, but she was just amazing. She danced and never complained. She was always so positive,” Husta said. “She’s always been an amazing dancer, but I thought this would be the end of it. To come back from that and continue to be a beautiful dancer, you wouldn’t know she had (steel rods) in her back if you watched her dance.” When she realized she was going to live the rest of her life with steel rods in her back, that’s when it started to sink in for Tara that her passion, dancing, might be a thing of the past. She didn’t want to leave the hospital and face what was sure to be a long, grueling path to simply be able to walk and function again, much less dance. “I was begging not to leave (the hospital) because I didn’t feel like I was ready, but they pushed me. I couldn’t dance for six months, but I was allowed to do physical therapy about a month post-op,” Tara said. “That was the one thing I was scared about. It wasn’t even the fact that I was getting surgery, it was what am I going to do with my life (without dance)? I figured I wasn’t even going to be able to walk. “I met a girl in Philadelphia who had the same surgery and also was a dancer and she really guided me through it. After my surgery, I told the surgeons that I wanted to do what she did for me, but for other kids. I have that opportunity now by mentoring kids who are thinking about getting the surgery.” Bouncing right back True to her personality, after the initial shock wore off, Tara took on the challenge of rehab with the fervor she had come to be known for in her dance studios growing up. And not only did she want to jump right into her own rehab, she wanted to help other kid who were going through a similar situation. “It’s very heartwarming. We went to a spine mentoring/leadership type of thing in September of this year. I got to meet these kids and we were all joking around about how we all have metal rods in our backs and how we can’t go through metal detectors,” Tara said. “All the stupid things people ask us. Nobody really understands besides us. So it was very interesting. I just like helping people when it comes to things they’re not sure about. People will find me on Instagram and say they are going through the same thing and I’ll talk to them about it.” “It never ceases to amaze me how far she has come over these past few years. The spinal fusion surgery to correct the scoliosis has been life-changing, not only physically, but mentally. It has made her stronger and she just doesn’t back down from a challenge,” Donna Payne said. “Not dancing, for her, was never an option. She was always, no matter what, going to find a way to get back into dancing. She’s always been a competitor, but I think the surgery put a lot into perspective. I think you take a lot for granted, first of all when you are a teenager, and you really don’t appreciate the strength of your body and what it can do until you can’t do it,” Payne added. “Whether you are a dancer or an athlete, there is a lot of common traits between dance and sports. They both take athleticism, dedication, sacrifice, a strong work ethic. That is comparable whether you are an athlete or a dancer. I really find that Tara has shown over the years that whenever there are setbacks she just rises above it. She knows what it takes to get to the next level and is willing to go that extra mile to achieve anything she wants to. She got into University of the Arts, which is exactly what she wanted, and she’s going for dance.” Less than three years ago Tara was having steel rods inserted into her back. Less than two weeks ago she found out she was accepted into University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where next fall she plans to enroll on a partial scholarship as a dance major. [adrotate banner=”7″] Building a bond Perhaps the best thing to come out of major back surgery as a 14-year-old is not only the bond between Tara and Donna being strengthened, but the newfound respect Tara says she has for her mother and all that she has done to guide Tara through the most difficult time in her young life. “I think my mom had a big part in it. Through everything, she always believed I could do it. Even if it was the slightest thing, like going to get the mail from the mailbox, she would believe that I could do that,” Tara said. “We would have to take walks because that’s what the doctor would tell us to do. So, every single day it was like, ‘Tara, let’s go.’ Our relationship really did improve. You’re at that age when you’re constantly battling with your mom. She jokes around that they must have put something in my brain to make me not like that anymore.” Donna Payne said that Tara was not an easy teenager to deal with when she was a freshman. Often times Tara was petulant and combative, but Donna knew part of that was simply the worry her daughter had about the looming back surgery. “I have a running joke with my friends that I paid extra for a lobotomy when she was under. When she was a freshman, we battled and battled and butted heads. It was a very trying year, and I think part of it had to do with the fact that she knew she was going to have this surgery. So she didn’t know how to handle it and was lashing out,” Payne said. “But the surgery really did bring us closer together. We would take walks around the block and do whatever we could do to make sure she could get back on her feet. I just made sure she did whatever she had to do because I knew what her goals were. As a mom, you just do what you have to do.” Husta said she has been very impressed with the way Donna Payne has handled such a difficult situation. “I don’t know that I could have been as relaxed as Donna was. Tara was doing back handsprings not long after her surgery. I would have been like, ‘no! Stop!’ But Donna was so good with it, just letting her go through the process of letting her heal and get back into dance,” Husta said. “Donna really did a lot of research. She took her to Philadelphia to see a special physical therapist who worked with a ballet company. She did what she had to do to get Tara back into shape.” Tara's passion for dance led her to become one of the founding members of Absegami's new dance team, which performs at pep rallies and other school events. Tara’s passion for dance led her to become one of the founding members of Absegami’s new dance team, which performs at pep rallies and other school events. Donna Payne said it wasn’t always easy to continue to push Tara to get better. As a mother, that’s a heavy burden to bear when there are times when you just want to break down and have a good cry. “Sometimes you have to be tough,” Payne said. “There were times where it breaks your heart to see them in such a condition, crying and sore and hurt. But if you crumble, too, forget it, they are never going to get up.” “Donna is very proud of her. I always said to her that I never heard Tara complain. The kid just got back into it and started dancing again,” Husta said. “I think the way Donna felt was that she had so much faith in Tara and she knew Tara is a tough kid who would overcome it. That’s the type of kid she is. If she wants something, she’s going to go after it.” Finding herself Tara said she believes she wouldn’t be the person she is today had it not been for her back surgery, and the strength she found in herself during the rehab process. She said she matured and made a concerted effort to improve her grades and go after her dream of studying at the University of the Arts. “The surgery really put things in perspective for her. She always had the capability to do well, but freshman year she just kind of didn’t care about much of anything. After the surgery she really wanted to get her grades up. It really does change you,” Payne said. “It’s kind of emotional to think about everything that you go through in these past four years. Even though it goes by quick, there is so much that has happened,” Tara said. “As much as I don’t want to admit saying it, it really helps you find out who you are. You might think that you know who you are junior year, but you really don’t. It’s senior year that you truly find yourself.” And as a senior, Tara is one of the founding members of Absegami’s new dance team. She takes advanced dance as a class for two periods a day, and now twice a week after school she works out with the new dance team. Right now the dance team is performing at pep rallies and other school functions, with the hope of one day soon becoming a squad that can perform at basketball games and those kinds of things. Tara certainly is leaving her mark on Absegami High School, and she credits her mother for being the inspiration for helping her find her direction in life. “I just feel like I’m a lot stronger physically and mentally. If I can get through that, I can get through anything. I’ve never worked so hard to get over something. That was months of physical therapy. I even went to a dance physical therapist in Pennsylvania to get back into it,” Tara said. “I know my mom is always there for me now and will support me through everything. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be dancing right now. “She’s the one who told me to do dance physical therapy and I didn’t even know that was a thing. She did all this research just to make me feel better about myself. It’s such a good feeling to know that you always have someone there to support you. When I got accepted into college she was crying and just kept saying ‘I am so proud of you.'” Said Husta, “For something like to happen and for her to come back from it and still be so amazing, it’s very inspirational.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]


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