Every time Tessa Puma takes the dance stage, her parents tear up. They know how far their little girl has come and how hard she’s trained to relearn to dance since undergoing an above-knee amputation.
In 2017, Tessa fought a rare strep throat infection. When the strep spread to her bloodstream, she developed necrotizing fasciitis
and was only given a 20 percent chance to live.
The doctors had to take her leg, amputating above the knee.
Then 6 years old, Tessa said she doesn’t remember much about the illness that almost killed her.
“I remember driving to the hospital, but I don’t remember anything after that,” she said.
“We had to explain it to her quite a few times,” said Matt Puma, Tessa’s father. “She thought she had had dental surgery, and we had to tell her no, baby, you lost your leg.”
Coming back to the dance
Tessa said she’s been dancing since she could first remember hearing music. At age 2, she took her first dance class. By 6, she was part of the company at the Center Stage Dance Studio in Northfield, Ohio. She attended elite dance camps and was just beginning to compete when she came down with flu-like symptoms.
“She was in the hospital for two and a half months,” said Matt. “She had an infection on the entire left side of her body. They were preparing us for her death.”
After doctors performed an above knee amputation, Tessa was in a coma.
“We were waiting for the medication to wear off, but she wasn’t waking up,” her father continued.
It wasn’t until her dance “big sis” Chloe arrived that Tessa opened her eyes.
Dancing after above knee amputation
While doctors knew Tessa would walk again, they didn’t know she’d be performing back flips, round offs, and handsprings in her acro and hip hop classes.
“Most patients, after we fit them, walk 10 feet with the parallel bars. Within three minutes, Tessa was doing flips down the hall,” said Adam Engstrom, CPO, Hanger Clinic prosthetist.
When Tessa’s parents sought out care at Hanger Clinic in 2018, Engstrom’s team outfitted the young dancer with a new custom-fit socket with a personalized pink mermaid design and selected the best componentry suited for Tessa’s high activity level.
“Tessa needed to be able to do flips and handsprings for dance,” Engstrom said. “She needed to be able to do the splits with each leg in the front.”
“The first time we put her in her new prosthetic, her eyes lit up. She had so much more control and was able to do so much more.”
“When we walked into the office, they had every piece of equipment laid out,” Matt commented. “They said, ‘Okay, she needs this knee with this foot.’ And they fit her with a new socket. Now, she keeps up with everyone.”
In addition to competing in dance on a national level, Tessa is also playing softball, swimming, and re-learning to ride her bike. Her goals for this year: back tucks and a double round off handspring.
“It’s amazing to see how far she’s come,” Matt added. “We knew she’d be back, but we had no idea she’d be able to do this much.”
For parents facing a similar situation, Matt encouraged them to never stop looking for answers.
As for Tessa, she’s looking forward to competing. She wants to be a cheerleader and a dancer in high school, and when she grows up, she wants to be a dance teacher.
But she had these words for other children who are facing amputations: “Don’t give up and just keep staying strong.”