PHILADELPHIA - Danielle Loustau-Williams was excited, though she kept her expectations in check.
"I'm trying not to get my hopes too high," she said. Still, there was no suppressing her smile.
On this steamy day in late July, if all went well, Danielle would be the beneficiary of a small miracle: The 19-year-old who had entered on crutches would leave walking.
She and her parents, Jenny and Wick, had driven two hours from their home in West Grove, Chester County, Pa., to this industrial park in Edison, N.J. They were there to visit Bob Austin, a certified prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. They'd been told he was the best around. For Danielle and her family, the goal was not just to walk again but something much more ambitious and essential: to dance again.
"Are you ready? Are you nervous?" Austin asked.
Danielle nodded and smiled.
The purpose of the visit was to fit a custom-made socket to what remained of Danielle's right leg, which had been amputated about 8 inches below the knee.
A devastating accident
In January, her right foot was crushed under the wheels of a commuter train. The accident was all the more devastating because Danielle was a dancer, a promising performer at Philadanco, the modern dance company in West Philadelphia.
Since then, she had become, in her words, "an experienced veteran of the world of trauma." The previous six months had been "an exercise in patience," a test of character and resolve that had profoundly changed her and her family. As always, she was eager for the next challenge.
The prosthesis can accommodate different kinds of artificial feet. It's a molded plastic sheath that's held to the stump by suction, through an airtight fit with a silicone sleeve and layers of socks.
The fitting would be like trying on a tailor-made dress or pair of pants, Austin explained, but much more critical. Not only must the socket fit, but it must avoid pressure on bone and injury to the still-healing soft tissue. To achieve that perfect fit would require time and many adjustments.
Austin showed Danielle two kinds of artificial feet - one featuring a carbon-fiber leaf spring, capable of handling the impact of dancing. The other was an "all-terrain" model with a versatile mechanical ankle.
Danielle tried on the socket and the foot with the leaf spring. She stood and took a few tentative steps, steadying herself between parallel bars. "I think it's kind of cool-looking," she said.
Austin grilled Danielle about how it felt. To make sure the fit was right, he kept modifying the shape of the plastic sheath.
Danielle was becoming more adventurous. In no time, she was outside the parallel bars, walking briskly between lines in the hallway.
"You're doing phenomenal," Austin said. "Many times young amputees require very little coaching. They pick up where they left off. Danielle has a lot of will."
Danielle, walking more smoothly and confidently, beamed with triumph.
On Friday, Jan. 26, Danielle had taken a class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth. About noon, she and a couple of classmates headed to the nearby train station. They were chatting about their ambitions and their dancing careers. Danielle was bound for Center City, where she lived in an apartment, to have lunch with a friend.
On the advice of her lawyer, Danielle won't talk about how the accident occurred. The matter is the subject of a lawsuit. SEPTA's version is that she ran for the train, leaped onto the steps, and grabbed a handrail. SEPTA contends that the momentum of the train swung her around and she slipped and fell.
Danielle contests that account vehemently. This much is indisputable: Her foot ended up beneath the train and was crushed.
"I looked down and saw that my foot was gone," she says. "I didn't pass out. I didn't scream. I rolled onto my stomach so I wouldn't see my foot. I stayed very calm and focused on my breathing."
What happened next was a blur. Initially, witnesses were too horrified to act, Danielle says. But then a Drexel student rushed to her aid, ripping his shirt to make a tourniquet. A nurse appeared, followed by EMTs and an ambulance, and Danielle was flown by helicopter to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Later that day, when her father saw her in the recovery room, Danielle was shaken, fearful of what she might have lost. "You know all the stuff our family has been through," Wick told his daughter. "And you know these things have a way of working out all right."
That evening, when she was wheeled to her room, she was greeted exuberantly by fellow dancers from Danco II, or D2, Philadanco's preprofessional troupe. Danielle was touched by their spirited support; they were amazed by her cheerfulness, her refusal to surrender to self-pity. Her attitude: "All right, I had a bad day. So what? I'm alive, and that's good enough."