Lauren DeMaria first started dancing at age 3. She loved ballet and knew it was her “thing,” even from a young age. Among her family and friends, DeMaria was known as “Lauren, the dancer.”
She trained more and more intensely as the years went on. Throughout her senior year at Locust Valley High School, she’d hop on the Long Island Rail Road after school and head to the Joffrey Ballet School and Steps on Broadway in Manhattan, four times a week. “It was a big part of my high school life,” she said.
Despite the rigorous schedule, she graduated as valedictorian in 2009.
DeMaria’s parents said she could pursue dance as long as she wanted, but advised her to have a backup plan. She comes from a family of health care professionals — her mother is a nurse, her father and brother (another Locust Valley valedictorian, class of 2006) are doctors. DeMaria headed to Columbia University and earned a degree in neuroscience and behavior and completed pre-med courses along the way.
But the whole time, she said, dance was on her mind. If she wasn’t studying in the library, she was practicing in the studio.
“All my life was always 50 percent academics, 50 percent dance,” she said. “I was always going back and forth with it. So I wanted to set my mind to one thing and see how it went.”
DeMaria took a gap year after graduation and leapt onto a different path. She danced professionally with the Eglevsky Ballet and New York Theatre Ballet, cherishing her time in the spotlight.
“I was culturing the world with my dance, and it was going really well,” she said.
But “because I had done pre-med and completed all the courses and done my MCATs, my mom was just like, ‘Why don't you apply to med school and see what happens?’”
While on tour with the New York Theatre Ballet, DeMaria was sitting outside her bus in 2014 when her mother called and told her she had been accepted into SUNY Downstate College of Medicine.
“Oh my God,” DeMaria remembers thinking to herself. “What am I gonna do?”
She was conflicted; she loved dancing and being on tour, “but at the same time, there was this opportunity to really find a passion for medicine and eventually medicine would be a very stable, long-standing career that I would always have,” she said.
“I remember sitting there outside the bus and saying, ‘You know what, I did what I set out to do when I was 6 or 7 years old and decided dance was my thing,’” DeMaria said. “I’m never going to have regrets that I never tried. But I don’t think I’d be completely fulfilled with my life if I kept going with it.”
Even though she chose to become Lauren, the doctor, the first couple of years of medical school presented a challenge she didn’t expect.
“I felt like I lost part of my identity,” she said. “Transitioning my mentality of who I was, and the second hard part was figuring out what medicine I would feel fulfilled in.”
“I thought, well if I can’t directly be a dancer, I want to contribute to the dance community.”
So she decided to pursue orthopedic surgery. “I wanted to help all those athletes with their weird foot injuries and their hip replacements.”
But after seeing a hip replacement surgery for the first time, “I thought, ‘This isn’t for me,’” she said with a laugh.
Finally, DeMaria found ophthalmology. “You’re doing microscopic surgeries on eyes and you’re helping people see again, and it feels so fulfilling,” she said.
DeMaria is currently in her residency training at NYU to become an ophthalmologist. She says that even though it’s still hard for her to view dance as a hobby rather than her career, she’s beginning to shift that perspective. DeMaria sees dance as always being a part of her life, and has taken hip-hop classes for fun with her friends.
“I want to always have it as an option, or if I’m 55 and want to be a part-time ophthalmologist and make my own little dance studio or my own little company, I want to keep actively involved still.”
But for now, “doing surgery is like a performance,” DeMaria said. “Every time I even talk to a patient I feel like I am on stage. As a surgeon, you are fully in control of every movement that happened in the operating room, and you find your own way to guide yourself and everyone else through the surgery.
I saw it as my chance to finally be that: a prima ballerina.”