Teen athlete overcomes clubfoot

Photo of teen athlete Leila wearing a gold medal

Teen athlete Leila proudly displays her gold medal.

Teen athlete Leila is used to facing and overcoming obstacles. She was born with a clubfoot, a congenital defect where the foot turns inward and downward. But despite this challenge—and a few other unexpected health setbacks—Leila is finding success as a competitive rower.

Her mom, Bridget, isn’t at all surprised. “When Leila was little, she would have this cast on and she'd want to be swinging from the monkey bars and running around the house,” Bridget remembers. “So we just let her go and she became this athlete. She just has this tremendous spirit.”

When Bridget was pregnant with twins Leila and Robert and learned that her daughter would be born with a clubfoot, she wasted no time. “I'm one of these people who has to have a plan,” she says. “I thought, Okay, let me find out who the best doctor is. So we found our way to Dr. Hyman.”

Joshua Hyman, MD, is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Irving Medical Center. A world-renowned expert on lower-extremity deformities, Dr. Hyman helped Bridget understand her daughter’s condition and potential treatment options. “When I met Dr. Hyman, I knew he was my guy right off the bat,” Bridget says. “He was very kind and explained everything. He let me know this is manageable, that we could take care of it.”

Teen athlete Leila sits on the dock next to her single scull (narrow shell for a single rower).

Teen athlete Leila sits on a dock next to her single scull.

Clubfoot is typically treated using the Ponseti method, a nonsurgical treatment employing casts and braces to correct the foot’s position over time. But for Leila, there were other factors to consider.

“Leila was born with an atypical clubfoot, which affects how it responds to treatment,” Dr. Hyman says. “And because it doesn't respond as well to standard treatment, it requires a slightly different, more flexible approach. By recognizing it early on, we were able to adapt.”

Leila initially responded well to surgery but soon developed a recurrence that brought her back to the operating room. When it became apparent she wasn’t tolerating the required bracing and was beginning to develop a second relapse, Dr. Hyman wondered if there may be something else contributing to the issue. A scan revealed the complication.

“We found she had a tethered spinal cord, a condition where the spinal cord gets stuck in the lumbar region,” Dr. Hyman explains. “As the child grows, the spinal cord gets stretched, which can cause neurological injury. Thankfully, it's reversible, but only if recognized early and acted upon.”

Dr. Hyman referred the family to pediatric neurosurgeon Richard Anderson, MD, who performed surgery to release Leila’s spinal cord when she was just five years old. With her neurological issue addressed, Leila underwent a series of corrective surgeries on her foot and lower leg. Then came years of physical therapy and corrective braces to help strengthen her leg and maintain the correct foot position.

Through it all, Leila showed the same unstoppable spirit that has allowed her to thrive as an athlete. After years of competitive swimming, Leila and her brother, Robert, discovered rowing. At only 12 years old, the twins found success despite often racing against seasoned 19- and 20-year-old athletes. They have since competed in local, regional, and national tournaments, including the USRowing Youth National Championships and the Overpeck Summer Sprints, where Leila won a gold medal in 2022.She hopes to continue rowing competitively and earn a college scholarship.

medium closeup photo of Leila smiling

Leila is all smiles.

Bridget believes her daughter’s recent success is just the beginning. “Leila has been through so much, and she’s had to work so hard,” she says. “But she’s not somebody who will let anything hold her back.”