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B E E N  T H E R E:  HEALTH

Jennifer Prather

"I Can Overcome This!"

A Teen Editorial Board member interviews herself!

January 1999

Scoliosis, a curving of the spine, appears in teenage girls more often than in boys. Depending on the degree of the curvature, a brace or surgery may be necessary. At 63 degrees, my curvature was severe enough to require surgery. This is the story of my diagnosis, surgery and recovery from scoliosis.

The InSite: What exactly is scoliosis?

Jennifer: Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine that affects 2-4% of the population. I had the most common kind called Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (idiopathic, means "unknown cause").

TI: How does someone know if they have it?

Jennifer: Doctors will use an x-ray to make an accurate measurement for diagnosis.

TI: In your case, what were your first symptoms?

Jennifer: I was trying on dresses for the Sweetheart Dance. The straps were uneven, but I just thought it was the dress. Little did I know, it was my spine that was making my shoulders uneven. I wanted to show my mom the dress that I had on and ask her about my shoulders. Then I leaned over to pick something up. She said for me to hold still. This was a little weird for me, but what was even more weird is when she exclaimed that I had a "hump" on my back. We went to the doctors to get it checked out and they said that I had scoliosis.

...but what was even more weird is when she exclaimed that I had a "hump" on my back.

TI: Had you ever been told this before?

Jennifer: Most schools do a check for scoliosis in the 6th grade. At these screenings, they have you lean over and touch your toes. I did this, but they didn't see any scoliosis. Because my form of scoliosis appears when you go through puberty, they were unable to detect it ahead of time.

TI: What are the treatments for scoliosis?

Jennifer: There are two main treatment options for scoliosis: a brace or spinal fusion surgery. The brace is used when the curve is less than 40 degrees. When the curve is 40 degrees or greater spinal fusion is recommended because the brace is ineffective and there's a greater risk the curve will get worse. A more severe curve could lead to a deformity of the rib cage, which can impede critical organs. Most people have a small degree of scoliosis, and don't even know it.

TI: What was the degree of your curvature?

Jennifer: My spine curved at a very fast rate. In my first x-ray, I was told that my spine was about 35 degrees. But six months later, my spine had curved to an astounding 63 degrees. That's when my family and I knew we had to take action, and soon.

My spine curved at a very fast rate...six months later [after diagnosis], my spine had curved to an astounding 63 degrees.

TI: How did you feel when you were first diagnosed?

Jennifer : When I was recommended for surgery, I was devastated. I was very much of an athlete and any time you hear the word surgery, you know that you are going to be out of your seasonal sport. The only thing I can remember saying is, "But I won't be able to play sports!" I guess you could say that being out of sports wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a person, but it was very saddening for me. I was told that I had to give up track, cheer leading, soccer and gymnastics. I had become very embarrassed and self-conscious of my back and how I looked.

TI: How did your family take the news?
Jennifer: Mom was very emotional, she was concerned with my feelings and how this would affect me in school, sports and other activities, both present and in the future. My dad faced the reality of the doctor's recommendations and supported my decision to have the surgery. My younger brother was scared for me. He had many questions including whether this could happen to him as well (because scoliosis is known to run in families.)

TI: How did people react when they found out you were going to have back surgery?

Jennifer: They were surprised. I didn't show really noticeable signs of scoliosis and no one really expected it.

TI: What is the actual surgery like?

Jennifer: My surgery was scheduled on June 17, 1997. I was very nervous about it, although I knew that many of my friends were going to be waiting for me whenever I was out. It was so much easier to have friends there and know that somebody cared about what was about to happen to me. After being "put under," I was wheeled into the operating room. They made an incision along the spine and moved my spine over, so it would be straight. After that, they replaced the spongy discs that separate the vertebrae, with some bone from my hip. This was so that the bones would "fuse" together, making my spine hard. Then they attached a metal rod onto the spine to prevent it from moving over again. Finally, they stitched me back up and sent me to the ICU (intensive care unit).

It [surgery] was so much easier to have friends there and know that somebody cared about what was about to happen to me.

TI: That sounds like in intense procedure! What was recovery like?

Jennifer: Very difficult. The pain was enormous and I was always falling asleep. My room was full of daisies (my favorite flowers) and gummy bears (another one of my favorites). I seemed to have plenty of visitors and people who took care of me, which made the recovery so much easier. I was only in the hospital for 4 days!

TI: Did you have physical therapy?

Jennifer: Oh yes! I had such a pushy Physical Therapist and I was forced to walk on my second day out of surgery. When I was sent home, my mom took 4 weeks off of work so that she could take care of me. She would change my bandages, relieve my pain, and even help me walk and sit. She was a key factor in my recovery. It took a good 6 months until I felt okay with myself and felt recovered.

TI: What was it like going back to school after the surgery?

Jennifer: For the first few months people were very cautious not to bump into me. I had a group of friends who seemed to be very protective of me. I live in a small town, so pretty much everyone knew that I had had surgery on my back. Yet, those who didn't know were very shocked and interested about the procedure. I found out that many people have scoliosis themselves, but only less severe degrees of it.

I found out that many people have scoliosis themselves, but only less severe degrees of it.

TI: Have you ever known anyone who wore a brace rather than underwent surgery?

Jennifer: Not directly, but many people have told me about someone they  know that had scoliosis, and decided to stabilize it with a brace. Those people may have to wear the brace under their shirts for up to 23 hours a day. That would be really difficult for me. I have also heard that some teenagers who wear the brace are often self-conscious because of it. But, I've also heard of those who know the brace is helping them and that it's just temporary, so they have a good attitude about it.

TI: Aside from curing your scoliosis, where there any other positive things that came out of the surgery?

Jennifer: It's given me a new-found compassion for people who are suffering. During the recovery days of the surgery, I was very much in pain. As I said before, the surgery has taken me out of many sports that I used to enjoy. But I am slowly returning to the things I love and enjoy. My first couple of weeks after the surgery I wasn't able to lift anything over five pounds and having anything touch my back hurt me tremendously. But on the plus side, I was two inches taller immediately after surgery. I am now able to run as well as I used to, if not better. I have also returned to soccer.

It's [the surgery] given me a new-found compassion for people who are suffering.

TI: Where can someone find more information about scoliosis?

Jennifer: I recommend an excellent book on scoliosis called The Scoliosis Handbook: A Consultation with a Specialist by Michael Neuwirth and Kevin Osborn. This book concentrates on the treatment options. It is very positive and it really helps with all decisions that are involved. Also you can receive a free informational pamphlet by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to:

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
P.O. Box 2058
Des Plaines, IL 60017
or
Call the National Scoliosis Foundation at 1-800-NSF-MYBACK (673-6922)

TI: What advice would you give to someone living with scoliosis?

Jennifer: To never give up. I think they should try to live the most normal life possible. I think scoliosis will only get you down if you let it. And if they have back pain, they should talk to their doctor. I highly recommend the surgery, because after a few months of recovery, your life is back to normal and you aren't in pain.

...never give up. I think they should try to live the most normal life possible. I think scoliosis will only get you down if you let it...I highly recommend the surgery, because after a few months of recovery, your life is back to normal and you aren't in pain.

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