Emma Savarese was born with a short femur, no anterior cruciate
ligament, and a badly deformed left hip on July 19, 1999. Without
corrective surgery, her left leg was likely to be 10 inches shorter than her
right leg at maturity.
At age 15, on Sunday, Aug. 3, she jumped off Alcatraz Island into the icy
waves of the San Francisco Bay and swam more than 1.5 miles to Chrissy
Field Beach at Presidio Park next to the Golden Gate Bridge. She stepped
out of the water first among all females, first in her swim only category,
and fifth overall out of 257 total competitors in the Alcatraz Challenge
Swim that day. Being in the water is more than a swim for the Miami
"I liked it because I was always on crutches," Savarese said. "Then I could
swim and not worry about it."
Swimming was freedom for her; an opportunity to cast aside the crutches
and be just like her friends in the pool. The hard part for Emma came
whenever she could not swim. Surgeries, 22 of them, came early and
often. It began when she was only a year old. Doctors at Shriner's
Hospital in Louisville recommended to her parents amputating her foot
and fusing her knee to create a good stump for a prosthetic leg.
"At the time, we thought it was ridiculous," said Emma's mom, Molly Savarese.
While they know now, that can be the best recommendation in many similar cases, Molly and Chris Savarese went to the doctor with a different
request for their daughter.
"We went to the doctor and said make that leg longer," said Emma's dad, Chris Savarese.
Because Emma's lower leg was intact and could bear weight, a limb lengthening option gave them hope. It was relatively new and unproven at
the time. Emma had her first surgery at 18 months old. She was in a body cast for two months.
"They made me eat on the floor," Emma recalled.
There really was no other way to get food to her all sprawled out. It was a "super hip reconstruction" which basically meant hip
replacement. They used her hip, cut off the top, repositioned it, bolted it back on and reconstructed her pelvis.
"It was major," Chris said. "Another one was the ACL. They took a piece of her quadriceps muscle, stripped it back, ran it
through her knee, tied it up and created the ACL that way."
Over the next 10 years, Emma endured 21 more surgeries including hip reconstructions, knee reconstructions, limb lengthening
procedures, and a procedure to actually slow the growth in her right leg. Most surgeries were performed by Dr. Dror Paley at
the Paley Advanced Limb Lengthening Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida. Most recovery was away from home, family and
friends with painful physical therapy.
"It was hard, especially when we had to live in Florida," Emma said. "I couldn't swim and I couldn't see friends."
Chris had to travel for work. Molly had to be home with Emma's brothers. Thankfully her parents – Emma's grandparents –
helped by staying with Emma in Florida.
"Emotionally, it was just a tough road," Molly said.
Emma started competitive swimming with a summer swim team at six years-old. She advanced to year-round competition,
through different levels. She went to the blocks on crutches, was disqualified from butterfly competitions because her feet
didn't match – a requirement for her favorite butterfly stroke. Never quit, she's in her third year with the Cincinnati Marlins
swimming at the senior level. Keeping up has been her toughest challenge. She continues to swim.
"With all the surgeries, it was hard to get back into it," she said." All my friends got faster and I had to start over. That was
Many others would, but Emma never gave up, she swims, not just swims, but competes.
"By then I was really competitive," Emma said. "I always wanted to get back into it. I wanted to keep swimming so I could play a
Savarese did more than play. She inspired others. She actively competed while enduring multiple surgeries, racing while wearing
a "fixator" five pound bulky limb lengthening device screwed into her bones in 13 different locations. Photos of her are on the
brochures for the medical device. Dr. Paley lined his office walls with her photos to encourage his other patients.
Emma's leg was lengthened by four inches. The difference between her two legs is just under two inches. In a couple years,
when she is at full skeletal maturity, Emma could have a final year-long lengthening procedure. For now, getting on a ferry boat
to Alcatraz for the Aug. 3 swim with 250 swimmers and runners made her most nervous.
"I didn't really know what to do," she said about her first open water race. She finished first in her category beaten only by top
level tri-athletes. She'll be racing in the pool for the Marlins and Ursuline Academy this season. "I really like to be inspiring to
Please check out http://paleyinstitute.org.
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Dror Paley, MD, FRCSC
|ORTHOPEDIC EDUCATIONAL SITE BY THE MOST
EXPERIENCED LIMB LENGTHENING SURGEON IN THE
Paley Institute Surgical Limb Reconstruction Fellowship Program
This UNIQUE fellowship is designed for orthopedic surgeons interested in
developing an expertise in pediatric and adult limb reconstruction/deformity
surgery of the lower and upper extremities. For more information Click Here