Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 21

Broken Dream

Just eight blocks from the Imperial Theatre is PhysioArts, where everyone from Billy Elliot went for physical therapy when they were hurt. Broadway is its own little village inside New York City, containing everything a show might need all within a few short blocks.

Or at least, they seem short when you’re not injured. But when your left knee won’t bend and there’s a searing pain running up your leg, they take forever.

Come on, Alex, you can do this, I told myself. I gritted my teeth and forced my way along the crowded sidewalk. Six blocks to go.

I’d told Robbie I could walk to Physio on my own since there wasn’t a guardian available to go with me. In gymnastics, I’d learned to push through the pain, and I didn’t want to disrupt the show more than I already had.

“I’m fine, really. It’s bad enough you have to replace me—I don’t want to cause any more headaches.”

I was embarrassed by my injury. It was only my fourth show and I’d already let the team down. All I wanted was to walk to Physio, get a brace, and go home to ice my knee. But every step of the walk burned, and by the time I arrived, I was worried. I tried to play it down, but the physical therapist took one look at my knee and declared that I needed to see a surgeon.

She called the show to send a guardian, told me not to put any weight on my leg, and gave me a pair of crutches. As soon as I saw the crutches, I knew I was in trouble.

“How serious is it? Do you know when I’ll be able to perform?” I asked everyone. They all shook their heads and said it was too soon to tell. But I could see the worry in their eyes.

Todd, my appointed guardian from the show, arrived, took me to the doctor’s office, and contacted Mom. She was furious they hadn’t called her immediately. At first, they’d hoped the injury wasn’t serious, and by the time they realized it might be major, they were focused on getting me to a doctor. But still, it took hours before Mom was notified, and everyone at the show felt horrible about it.

Mom arrived at the doctor’s office right before they showed me my X-rays.

“Alex!” She ran into the lobby. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” I told her truthfully. “It hurts. A lot.” But having her there made everything less scary.

We both looked down at my knee. Underneath my gym clothes, it was swollen and puffy. I’d been injured before, but it had never looked as bad as this.

“Alex Ko?” an older man in a doctor’s outfit approached us. “I’m Dr. Hamilton. If you come with me, we can look at your X-rays.”

I hobbled down the hallway, trying not to wince every time my knee brushed against something. Mom walked with those hard, precise steps that meant she was angry and scared. Like she was going into a fight.

Dr. Hamilton’s office was decorated with posters of famous athletes. His practice specialized in sports medicine, which is the reason Broadway shows used him. My X-rays were clipped to a light box on the wall.

“This here is your knee,” Dr. Hamilton said, pointing at a spot on the X-ray. “There’s a definite tear in the tendon.”

He paused.

“I’ve scheduled an MRI at the hospital tomorrow so we can find out exactly what we’re dealing with.”

“So you don’t know what’s wrong?” Mom said.

“His tendon may be torn or it could be Osgood-Schlatters, or choirboy knee,” said Dr. Hamilton. “It happens to very active children when they have repeated small knee injuries in the same place.” His voice softened. “I know you’re both scared, but I’m going to see you through this. Alex, you’ll be out of the show for at least a week. But I can’t be certain how severe it is until the MRI.”

“A week?” I said. I smiled, even though my leg was killing me. I could handle being out for a week. “So it’s not too bad?”

“Don’t get ahead of things,” Dr. Hamilton cautioned. “It could be worse than it looks. But right now I don’t think it’s terrible. We’ll know for sure tomorrow. Until then, I want you to rest, ice it, and fill this prescription. It’ll help with the pain.”

Just his words were help enough. Knowing I might only miss a week of the show improved my spirits. I still couldn’t bend my knee, but maybe it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

Kate called almost immediately after I got home. She’d become the person who contacted me for all show-related business.

“Well, this will all be okay,” she said as I picked up the phone. “What’d they say?”

“I have to get an MRI tomorrow,” I told her. “But Dr. Hamilton thinks I could be back in a week.”

That wasn’t exactly what he’d said, but it was what I wanted to believe.

“Good,” Kate said. “We’ve taken you off the schedule for now, though. Let me know what he says after the MRI.”

“Sure thing.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Finally, Kate cleared her throat.

“If you’re not better next week, Trent’s going to replace you at Lincoln Center.”

My stomach dropped as though I’d been punched. Amid everything else, I’d forgotten I was supposed to perform “Electricity” at Lincoln Center in a week. I felt like the world was falling in on me. I put my hand over the phone and tried to breathe.

“Alex? You there?”

“My family’s coming,” I whispered.

“What?”

“My family. From California. My cousin Emily was going to come, so . . . She already has her plane ticket.”

“Oh, damn!” Kate huffed. “Sorry. That’s awful. But maybe Dr. Hamilton’s right and you’ll be fine by then.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

“We’re pulling for you,” Kate said. “Call me as soon as you know anything. Or . . . even if you just want to talk. Anytime.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I will.”

I spent the rest of the evening on the couch with my leg propped up, holding an ice pack to my knee, but if anything, it looked more swollen than before.

“I guess you know all this already,” I whispered to Dad that night. “But I hurt myself today. My leg. I think it’s bad, but I don’t know. I’d get on my knees and pray for help, but I can’t even do that. So I guess I’ll just wait.”

We were at the hospital first thing next morning. The MRI was a giant tube that used magnetic imaging to get a picture of my muscles and skeleton. I had to lie perfectly still. With nothing to distract me, I could feel the throbbing in my knee like a second heartbeat.

Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.

When I finally got the results from Dr. Hamilton, the expression on his face told me everything I needed to know.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said, frowning at the images. “This is bad.”

I broke out in a cold sweat. I felt like the room was zooming in and out of focus around me. Dr. Hamilton’s voice seemed to come from far away. I grabbed Mom’s hand to keep myself from fainting.

“You’ve torn about fifty percent of the tendon in the knee,” he said. “Healing could take a while.”

“How long?” I asked, my voice tight.

“I can’t say. A month? A year?”

A year? My heart dropped to the floor. I felt like crying.

“What about the show?” Mom asked. “What will happen to him?”

“You’ll have to ask them,” Dr. Hamilton said. “But he’s going to be out for a while. And he won’t be able to rehearse either. Nothing that might stress his knee.”

Kiril’s words from when we first met came floating back to me: “Eventually, we all age out.” I was thirteen, going on fourteen. Billy was supposed to be eleven. In a year, would I still be able to play the part? What if my voice changed, or I grew?

Or what if they just didn’t want me anymore?

“I can’t wait a year,” I told him. “I need to go back in. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

Dr. Hamilton sighed heavily.

“Surgery is an option,” he said slowly. “In fact, most doctors would tell that you that it’s the option. But I don’t think it’s the right way to go in your case.”

“Will I heal faster if I do it?” I asked. That was the only thing I cared about.

“Maybe?” said Dr. Hamilton. “There are no guarantees. Surgery is risky. Especially for a dancer. It could hurt more than it helps, or you could develop scar tissue that would damage your knee permanently. Or it might make everything better.”

“What do you think we should do?” Mom asked.

“Nothing.” Dr. Hamilton shrugged. “Alex is young. His knee will recover, if we let it. But that means healing on your body’s timetable, not yours—and not the show’s. Truthfully, Alex, you might not heal in time to return to the show. But if we perform the surgery and something goes wrong, you might not heal at all.”

“We’ll have to think about this,” Mom said. “Get a second opinion. We have doctors back home, and—”

“Of course,” said Dr. Hamilton. “Whatever you choose, I’ll support you. If you decided to operate, Dr. Mung is a fantastic surgeon. For now, we’ll fit Alex for a brace and get him started on a physical therapy routine to keep up his stamina and endurance.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. What was there to say? I would heal, or I wouldn’t. The show would replace me, or not. There was nothing I could do.

There was nothing I could do.

Nothing.

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