LUTZ — Anyone can have a bad day. Things happen. For most of us, we finish up, go home, complain, and start all over the next day.
For Leigh Dittman, almost every day is a good day. She gets top grades as an eighth-grader at Buchanan Middle School. She is on a first-name basis with some of the most popular athletes in the Tampa Bay area — for example, she threw out the first pitch to her buddy, Rays pitcher David Price, at a game last week. Former Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton has given her a framed jersey with an autograph.
On the outside, it might appear that Leigh has it all going for her. But there is more to the story, an example of will and spirit, of heart and, especially, dignity.
Her story started with five broken ribs and a broken femur — before she was born. Leigh is in the middle of a lifelong battle against osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disease.
It was a battle that started before she was born. Her mother, Ellen, was told during her pregnancy that termination might be an option because of what doctors could see from her ultrasounds. Ellen and her husband, David, said no way. They were going to have Leigh, no matter what.
During her short life, she has spent much of it preparing for her next operation. Last year alone, she had four surgeries. She has worn casts on her legs, arms and hands, and has rods in both femurs as well as in one tibia. Her very rare disease, a genetic fluke, has left her wheelchair bound. She knows there is no known cure, and has come to accept her reality.
“It might be nice to walk one day, but I am who I am and I wouldn’t be me if I could walk,” she said in her bedroom, which is adorned by photos of her favorite athletes, most of them autographed. “This is who I am and I like it. I don’t know any other way.”
Leigh spends plenty of time reading and has a vocabulary that rivals any college professor. Well versed, she can speak on nearly any subject and is thinking about writing a book about her experiences — but isn’t sure if the time is right.
“I have barely started living my life,” Leigh said. “I have a lot to write about, but things haven’t even started.”
Her introduction to the Tampa Bay sports world started in 2009, when she had the chance to meet Price, then a pitching prospect who came in at the end of the Rays’ American League champion season of 2008. Her dad took her out to a meet-and-greet with the Rays at GameWorks in Tampa, and Price asked her to stick around. He had unlimited use of the games and Leigh beat Price three times in air hockey, even though former Ray outfielder B.J. Upton kept Price’s arm behind his back a few times. Upton, by the way, is one of Leigh’s favorite players.
Soon after, other local athletes decided that Leigh was one of their new best friends. Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden is a buddy. So are many of the Lightning and Bucs players. Former Rays catcher and current Toronto Blue Jays announcer Greg Zaun is a best buddy.
So, despite all the surgeries, with more to come, Leigh can’t help but smile and be happy. Her two younger sisters, Taylor and Skyler, have no health problems. But they are still her younger sisters, and know that when Leigh raises her eyebrows and tilts her head just enough, she means business.
On Sept. 28, that business will include Leigh hosting the 10th annual Leigh Dittman Charity Event to benefit the Shriners Hospital for Children at the India Cultural Center, 5511 Lynn Road. Overall, she’s raised a half-million dollars for the Shriners Hospital.
As for next year, Leigh plans to go to Gaither High School. After that, she sees nursing schools, writing and raising children. She knows there are going to be some broken bones along the way — and she smiles and goes along with her everyday life.
For tickets to Leigh’s 10th Annual Shriners Charity Event, call (813) 975-0063. All proceeds go to the Shriners Hospital.