Kiersten Latham has been dancing almost as long as she’s been walking. At age 3 she was enrolled in dance classes at a local dance studio in her hometown of Creston, Iowa, and by the time she finished high school, she was a teacher at that same studio.

Kiersten’s dance skills also earned her a scholarship from Southwestern Community College, where she’s now a member of the Dazzlers dance team.

Although she makes the dance moves look easy, Kiersten has vivid memories of a time in high school when her hip seemed to start fighting against her.

‘Something’s wrong with my hip’

“I was playing volleyball my freshman year,” Kiersten says. “It kept hurting. I thought it was just soreness. After the game, I was in tears.”

As a dancer and a multi-sport athlete, Kiersten had been constantly active her whole life. This sudden pain made no sense to her or to her family.

Sprinter in starting blocks

“I’ll never forget that day,” says Tammi Latham, Kiersten’s mother. “She was having a super game, so I was confused about why she had this death look on her face. Afterward, I could see the tears. She said, ‘Something’s wrong with my hip.’”

A diagnosis

They visited a local orthopedic surgeon and learned that Kiersten had hip dysplasia, a condition in which the hip joint has not formed properly. The socket portion of the joint is too shallow to support the ball within it, resulting in intense pain, especially during activity. Left untreated, hip dysplasia can lead to arthritis.

While the diagnosis was upsetting enough, the Lathams also learned from their local surgeon that the procedure Kiersten needed—known as a periacetabular osteotomy, or PAO—requires specialty care that is not easy to find.

“He told us, ‘Kiersten needs to go further on. I can’t do anything for her,’” Tammi says. “He referred us to another orthopedic surgeon in Des Moines, but we heard the same thing there: ‘This is way beyond what we can handle.’ It was a very long process.”

Putting up with the pain

Meanwhile, Kiersten endured the pain so she wouldn’t have to stop doing the things that she loved to do, including dancing, softball, basketball, cross country, and track.

“I pushed through it because I didn’t want to give up on anything,” Kiersten says. “I know the pain, and I know how much I can take.”

For relief, she had to frequently “pop” her hips back into place—a practice that became familiar to her teammates.

“There was not a time when you didn’t see me moving and popping my hips,” Kiersten says. “My teammates, they’d say, ‘If you pop it, it’s going to make it worse,’ but it actually feels better when I do it.”

Early in her junior year she had to quit cross country because the uneven terrain was too rough on her hips, but Kiersten continued to dance and compete in other sports, including making the state meet in track.

The right specialist found

Then the Lathams learned about Michael Willey, MD, a University of Iowa Health Care orthopedic surgeon who specializes in PAO. Willey and orthopedic surgeon Robert Westermann, MD, offer a comprehensive young adult hip clinic that helps people like Kiersten get back to a normal life.

“He’s such a patient guy,” Tammi says of Willey. “I didn’t know what to expect. I probably asked him hundreds of questions. He helped my husband and me know that he was going to take care of her.”

As Kiersten prepared for the surgery during the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, she also had questions.

“There was a lot going through my mind,” Kiersten says. “I told him I had a goal to get back to dance, do track, and play softball. He was great to me. He told me if I followed his orders, I would get back and do those.”

Willey performed the PAO at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital in July 2017 and then provided the guidance the Lathams needed to help Kiersten get through months of rehabilitation and achieve her goals.

Following the doctor’s orders

“Kiersten was very dedicated to her rehab,” Willey says. “She was getting back to activities three to four months after surgery. We were really happy with how she recovered.”

From a wheelchair to crutches to a cane, Kiersten progressed through her recovery until she was finally allowed to do some light running. In late November of her senior year, she hit a milestone on her trip to full recovery when she competed in the state drill team competition.

Back on the track

One major goal remained: getting back to the state meet in track. The first meet of the season set the tone for the year when she ran the 400 meters in her fastest time ever.

“I just looked at her and said, ‘You’re back,’” Tammi says.

Later in the season, Kiersten’s relay team set a school record. And she did return to the state meet in two events: distance medley and 4x400 relay.

“I have chills just thinking about it,” Tammi says. “That was amazing.”

New goals to achieve

Now Kiersten will set her sights on bigger goals, knowing that whatever she does, she won’t have to worry about physical limitations.

“I want to become a teacher, like my mom,” Kiersten says. “I want to teach younger kids. I like being around little kids. It’s not easy, but it’s fun.”

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