Imagine dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Then imagine having to decide whether or not to have your leg amputated.
This was Kara Skrubis’ dream—and her nightmare.
Kara was a freshman dance major at the University at Buffalo in the fall of 2019 when she began experiencing knee pain. At urgent care the 18-year-old was told to take Tylenol for a supposed sprained knee, but the pain continued. It wasn’t until winter break when an x-ray showed a tumor that was diagnosed as osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that typically affects teenagers.
While going through treatment, Kara considered the choices laid out for her: limb salvage surgery, which keeps as much of the bone as possible, or amputation. She says her dad, who died when she was 13, had a friend who was a bilateral amputee. Knowing him helped her grasp the idea and see life as still possible, especially with advanced prosthetics. She chose amputation. Although the prospect was daunting, Kara said, “I was very confident in both myself and my healthcare team when I made this decision, and was eager to start my new life as an amputee.”
Now 21, Kara is a senior studying psychology and health and human services—and an administrator at Tonawanda (NY) Dance Arts (TDA), where the former pre-professional ballet student inspires parents, staff, and students.
Kara says she was admittedly nervous at how the dance students would react to her prosthetic leg. Turns out “it wasn’t a big deal,” she says, adding that most students were purely curious. When one young student asked what happened, she just said, “My leg got sick, so they gave me a robot leg. Isn’t that cool?” Another student told her that her uncle also had a robot leg.
On the studio’s substitute teacher roster, Kara taught a pop-up ballet class this past February, demonstrating with her hands and utilizing student demonstrators. “Language is a huge part of teaching, so I also relied on that,” Kara says.
Kara’s career plans changed due to the child life specialists she met during her treatment; these professionals explained medical terms in a way that children could understand. “I was terrified when I was told I would need a port” (a medical device placed under the skin), Kara says, but the specialists brought in a model that she could see and touch. “It made it less scary,” she says, adding that she wants to be able to do this for other children.
Another comfort: while isolated in her hospital room due to the pandemic, Kara connected with peers going through similar treatments and facing similar decisions through MIB Agents, a pediatric osteosarcoma nonprofit that provides resources and support to patients and their families.
In July of 2022 when Kara applied for the Tonawanda studio job, her email included hints of a “unique story.” TDA associate director Kelsey Griffin says she found Kara polite, cheerful, and calm, the exact qualities required for a person working directly with clients as the face of the business. “Kara has a love for dance and her passion shows. She is patient, kind, and always looking to make someone feel special,” Kelsey says, explaining how, when a family offered to purchase a pair of ballet shoes for an upset student who had forgotten hers, Kara appreciated their kind offer but declined their money.
“Kara didn’t charge them but told me that if that wasn’t the correct decision to take the money directly out of her paycheck. Of course, I fully supported Kara’s decision and told her that she absolutely made the right call,” said Kelsey.
Kara also felt TDA was a good fit from the start. Already familiar with the studio from classmates at the university, she says the studio’s business practices connected with her personal values. “The faculty incorporate character development and life lessons in their teaching practices. They think 20 steps ahead in growing the curriculum.”
TDA director Melanie Boniszewski says that Kara “inspires others to know that they can do anything too. She has made a pivot in her life due to circumstances beyond her control and knows she can make a difference in the lives of others.” She believes Kara shows that there are no limits to what a person can do, regardless of what challenges they might face.
Or, as Kara puts it: “I want students to see that different can be beautiful.”