SURREY — “It wasn’t quite the summer we had planned, let’s put it that way.”
Caitlin Salisbury sighed and looked over at her daughter Emma, whose slight smile couldn’t hide the reality of the situation on a rainy Monday afternoon recently.
A wheelchair sat in a corner of the family’s Sullivan Heights-area home and the red-haired teen wore a plastic brace on her left shin and ankle. She has trouble moving her left arm but, thankfully, her right arm is just fine. Her legs are a work in progress, and she’s now able to walk short distances.
Nobody saw this coming last May, when the family returned home from vacation in Hawaii.
For Emma, the month-long holiday was a welcome breather before another busy summer of dance classes, this time as a student at the Arts Umbrella studio on Granville Island in Vancouver. It was going to be another step in her journey to become a professional dancer, something the Surrey teen has dreamed about since she was a preschooler.
Emma was fine the entire time in the South Pacific, but when the family arrived home, she felt really lethargic – kind of like she had a case of the flu.
“It was really weird because of all the people in our family, Emma never gets sick,” her mom noted with a nervous laugh.
(PICTURED ABOVE: In a photo published in the Now at the time, Emma starred as Clara in “The Nutcracker” staged by Royal City Youth Ballet in 2012.)
When random rashes started to appear on her body and the fevers got worse, it was time to visit a doctor. When the blood tests came back from the lab, the news wasn’t good.
The diagnosis set in motion a flurry of hospital visits and decisions about what to do next with a girl whose kidneys were failing, her blood cells in disarray.
“I really thought I was dying because I just felt so sick,” Emma said. “It was horrible.”
Her parents were mystified by the diagnosis of lupus, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.
“We were shocked,” Caitlin said, “because this is a kid who works out, like, eight hours a day – goes to school and then dances from three until 10:30 at night, then does homework until midnight, that kind of schedule. She really is a motivated person that way, and showed no real signs of this at all.”
Sadly, during that painful week last spring, the worst was yet to come for Emma, who had turned 15 the previous February.
‘EXTREMELY COMMITTED TO HER ART’
Emma Salisbury began dancing 13 years ago, at the age of two. As she got a bit older, she found ballet a bit too boring so she turned her attention to jazz and lyrical dancing. By the age of 11, however, she put on her first tutu, in a manner of speaking, and, in the process, became a ballerina, something her mother had always wanted.
She spent many hours a day at Panorama School of Dance, whose travelling company was planning a trip to Disneyland. A trip to Toronto was also in Emma’s future, as she accepted a scholarship into the National Ballet School of Canada. She spent her entire Grade 8 year there, living and learning, taking that next step.
“That program is very selective, and a big commitment for the dancers,” said Lisa Brandt, owner and artistic director of Panorama School of Dance.
“Emma is extremely committed to her art, her craft,” Brandt added. “She’s the type of child who has always succeeded and done what she’s put her mind to.”
Three years ago, Emma earned a starring role as Clara in Royal City Youth Ballet’s 2012 production of “The Nutcracker,” which was staged at Surrey Arts Centre as part of the company’s annual tour of the region.
(PICTURED AT LEFT: Siblings Connor, Emma, MacKenna and Abigael Salisbury (from left) get playful on a couch in the family’s Sullivan Heights-area home.)
“She was a beautiful dancer with a lot of talent, someone who danced from the heart,” said Laura Choroszewski, a board member with the Royal City company.
“It wasn’t just technique with Emma, it was passion. She has that. She’s just someone who has presence on stage, and you just loved watching her dance.”
Dance classes were put on hold in June, following Emma’s lupus diagnosis. Chemotherapy treatments were due to begin shortly.
Just one week later, the situation worsened the morning after she returned home from hospital.
“I was lying down on the couch in the other room,” Emma recalled. “I got a severe headache and that’s when I felt this huge elastic snap, that feeling, right on my brain.”
A blot clot had formed, leading to a stroke – something rare in a teenager but apparently quite common in someone with lupus.
The stroke caused left-side paralysis of Emma’s arm and leg.
The double-whammy of a lupus diagnosis and associated stroke left Emma and her family reeling over the summer.
NEW DEVICE HELPS ‘KICKSTART’ DANCER’S MOVES
Caitlyn and her husband Derek, a firefighter and paramedic, took time off from work to care for their eldest daughter and her younger siblings.
“We researched all these therapies but none of it’s covered through our benefits, although she is on some great programs like the At Home program through the government, but it doesn’t pay for anything quote-unquote unproven, anything new,” Caitlin said.
This includes MyndMove, a new, made-in-Canada form of functional electrical stimulation (FES) designed to improve purposeful movement of a client’s arm and hand. With the device’s electrodes attached, the client attempts to move an upper limb with the help of a therapist.
At the Neuromotion physio clinic in Vancouver, Emma has been receiving MyndMove treatments for the past couple of months, along with sessions on the Lokomat gait-training treadmill to help her walk again.
“We’re starting to see results,” Caitlin said optimistically.
But the treatments don’t come cheap – close to $4,000 for 20 sessions, with a recommended 40 sessions to start with. After 40 sessions, the price drops to $1,770, plus taxes.
The significant expense is why family friend Kelly Ewing launched an online GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for Emma’s rehab, under the title “Emma Salisbury: Dance Again.”
As of this week, the donations total more than $24,000, with dollars still coming in two months after the campaign first took off.
Ewing works with Caitlin at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
“I’ve always been impressed by Emma,” Ewing told the Now. “She’s such a perfectionist and a very determined young lady who always does what she sets her mind to. She’s not going to give up. She’s young and healthy and she has great spirit and drive. If anyone can dance again after something like this, she can do it.”
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At the Neuromotion clinic, Emma is the first patient in Western Canada to use the MyndMove technology, which was developed by MyndTec Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario.
At the clinic in Kitsilano, therapist Lynn Dawson was trained to use the device six months ago.
“She’s done really well,” Dawson said, “because she came here with absolutely no movement in her left arm and now there is some movement, without any stimulation at all. It’s been a way to allow Emma to access these muscles again, to give them a kickstart.”
It’s all part of the goal to get Emma dancing again.
“The thing about Emma is she’s a very hard worker and a focused girl, really determined in everything she sets her mind to,” said Choroszewski.
“She had a goal to be a dancer and I believe that she will succeed.”
This coming weekend, Royal City Youth Ballet will again stage its version of “The Nutcracker” at Surrey Arts Centre.
One of the five performances will be dedicated to Emma, and donations will be collected to help pay for her rehabilitation.
“It’s amazing how the dance community has come together to support her,” Choroszewski added.
“Our company has dancers from communities across the Lower Mainland, and everybody knows Emma and they’re touched by her story.”
Caitlin marvels at how supportive the local dance community has been of Emma.
“We’re hoping, hoping, hoping that all this hard work will get her back to dancing because we’re thinking, ‘Why would she be given all this talent and have it taken away like this?’ It doesn’t quite seem right. So all we can do is work at it. She’s pretty determined.”
WHAT IS LUPUS?
Lupus is an acute chronic autoimmune disease that can target any tissue or organ and affects close to 50,000 Canadians, mostly women.
In those with the disease, the immune system over-activates and misfires, leading to possible organ failure and death. There is no cure for lupus, and diagnosis is difficult, according to the BC Lupus Society.