For any of you that do not know what scoliosis is here is a quick description:
“Scoliosis is the twisting/ or curving of the spine away from the middle, creating an S like shape. Some patients have scoliosis due to a muscle weakness brought on by polio, cerebral palsy or spina bifida; Some are just born with scoliosis and it is due to a formation problem while the infant was developing; But, most scoliosis patients will be diagnosed as “idiopathic” cases which means the cause is unknown.” – Body & Health Canada // If you’d like to read more on scoliosis: Body & Health Canada
My spinal condition was first brought to my attention by a friend. We were in going into grade 7, our final year in elementary school and we were enjoying our last few days of summer in the backyard of my families home.
I had two friends over that day and we were just jumping on the trampoline. One of my friends stopped jumping, looked at me, tilted her head and said: “hey, is your back okay?” and I’m pretty sure I said “uh, yeah?”. I shrugged it off – I had never experienced back pain, or noticed anything odd so – what exactly was she talking about?
My dad overheard our conversation and walked over to us. He has lived with a bad back for years and knows the hardships of having to live with a spinal injury. He looked at my back and within a few seconds, he noticed and agreed that my spine did look a little “S” shaped. That’s when my playdate with my friends was put on pause to go to the doctors.
On September 17, 2002, I had my first appointment at Children’s Hospital. We intially met with another doctor, but I honestly can barely remember this appointment and I think that’s because it was so traumatic for me.
The first doctor we saw said he would fuse my spine from the base of my neck to my hips. It would mean I wouldn’t ever be able to ski, never really be able to dance, do gymnastics – do so many things that I loved. It was a complete shock to me.
I was a really timid kid, so chances are if my parents had felt confident with this doctor then I would’ve gone ahead with him and his surgery plan – regardless of my fears deep-down.
I didn’t want to give up all these things I loved, but if they hadn’t of spoken up on my behalf then I probably would’ve had to.
I’m so glad that they were both such strong advocates for me, because I wasn’t a strong advocate for myself always during this process. I asked questions and those probably showed my hesitancy, but I’ve never been very good at pushing back to authoritative figures.
At some point in the next few days/weeks, I met my doctor, Dr. Reilly.
He informed me that I was originally misdiagnosed about my x-ray results. Rather than the curve being 48 degrees, it was actually 54 degrees.
He explained that all curvatures higher than 45 degrees were usually beyond the point of being corrected by spinal braces and that my only viable option would be to undergo spinal surgery.
He went on to explain that the surgery meant placing two titanium rods along my spine to straighten it and then fuse the rods in place with screws.
He was extremely patient with me and my family, answering all the questions that we had – and let me tell you: we had plenty.
But, hearing about the actual surgery set me into a state of shock, and panic. I had heard the word “surgery” tossed around a lot since finding out about my scoliosis, but hearing what it really entailed terrified me.
I remember thinking that it sounded painful. I remember wondering if it would always be painful. I had never heard of someone having titanium rods along their spine, and that just sounded painful to me.
Aside from being nervous about the pain of the procedure, I was also scared of the social and lifestyle repercussions. Remember, I was like 12 – your friends and upcoming high school experience is all that you (or I) really think of.
I knew that my entire high-school experience – scratch that, my entire life would have to be lived a bit differently than everyone else. It was already made so clear that I would always have to have a focus throughout my life on my spinal health. I would need to strengthen my core (seriously, imagine how boring that sounds to a 12-year-old), I would be missing the first few months of grade 8, and there were activities I wouldn’t be able to participate in – some for the next year, some forever.
It was all too overwhelming to take in. In my mind, it felt like my life had changed so much in just a few short hours that day. I knew the surgery was inevitable, and I just had to come to terms of what that meant for me.
That day, I went from being a normal 12-year-old girl who was excited about leaving elementary school to start high-school to a girl who would be spending a majority of her grade 7 year in doctors offices, kicking off grade 8 with a major surgery, and missing her first months as a high-schooler because she would be training her post-op body back to normalcy.
After Dr. Reilly explained his surgery plan, which was to fuse my back from the base of my neck to just below my rib area, he then took some time to address my top concerns.
I feared I wouldn’t be able to dance, run, play with friends, that I wouldn’t be able to have kids one day, and time and time again he would reassure me that I would be able to do all these things. I just needed to take care of my physical health and be sure it was a priority for me for the rest of my life.
Looking back, I am really just so thankful that Dr. Reilly was my doctor.
Having a doctor care as much as he did really make the entire process a bit less scary. I appreciate so much now that he always tried to prioritize and address the things I considered a priority. I think him taking that time to hear out my concerns really made me feel so much more confident going into the surgery.
For example, when it came to dancing – the other doctor said they would fuse in a way that would’ve made it pretty much impossible to move my hips. Because Dr. Reilly knew I loved to dance, he decided to place the rods so that my hips would have more mobility to them.
Over the next year, there were countless appointments, blood tests, x-rays and of course, and let’s be honest: it sucked. But, nothing sucked as much as the teasing I endured at school.
My Grade 7 year was not at all what I had expected – I had never experienced teasing quite like this. Girls were especially mean, even girls I had considered friends.
Now, you have to remember, this was the year most girls began straightening their hair, playing with makeup, and wearing clothes that no longer sported Mickey Mouse or Cinderella. They were all beginning to take more time to stand out and enjoy fashion and makeup.
But, while they were primping themselves, I was taking more time to hide.
I stuck to my oversized gap sweaters to hide my ever increasing “S” shaped spine.
Unfortunately, it seemed that everything I did to hide it just made it all the more noticeable. I was no longer “one of the girls”, in their eyes I was an outsider that was weird, different, and deformed.
Certain names were thrown around quite a bit, “gimpy” was one of them that seemed to stick well around my classmates. I know it doesn’t sound like the worst name I could’ve been given, but for a 12-year-old it was completely crushing.
One thing I’ll never forget is the last day of Grade 7 before the summer break.
We all finally “graduated” from Grade 7, all the girls were running around crying, and hugging one another – as if we wouldn’t all see each other in just a few months at high school. I remember one of my good friends turned to me and was completely baffled that I wasn’t upset.
Was she all teary and sniffly saying “aren’t you sad at all? It’s all over!” – but I couldn’t be happier it was over. It was the worst year of my life yet, and I was ready to say goodbye and move on from that entire experience.
Summer 2003 seemed to drag on.
I was so unbelievably uncomfortable in my own skin by this point that I spent the majority of the summer indoors.
Aside from the immense discomfort that my scoliosis ensued physically, it also meant that I was subject to speculation wherever I went.
Going outdoors – to a store, to the pool, to the movies – meant that people would stop and stare, wondering what exactly was wrong with me.
Frankly, I preferred when people just came up and asked rather than just stare gawk at me.
Finally, September 2003 rolled around and I attended my first day of high school – also known as Orientation day.
Orientation day was the only day of school that I would attend for another 2 months.
In my first class, sewing, a girl sat next to me and we began to chat. She didn’t seem to notice my back, or at least it didn’t concern her – and we began to chat about hanging out during lunch.
At the end of the hour, she asked to hang out again. When I replied “actually no, I won’t be here tomorrow. I am having surgery” it really began to dawn on me that I was going to be missing a few very vital months.
These first few months are the ones where no one knows each other yet and people are beginning to forge new friendships, groups, and cliques. I would be coming back to school just in time for those circles to be built and friendships to be made. It meant that I would be coming back just to be an outsider again.
The night before my operation, I spent what felt like hours scrubbing myself down with a strong antibacterial soap in preparation for my surgery. It was so intense that it even dyed my skin with an orange/yellow colour.
By my surgery date, my curve had progressed to 84 degrees, and the curve was violently disfiguring my body. No oversized sweater could cover up just how twisted my spine looked. It looked angry, and it made me feel weak. I had trouble breathing because my ribs were crushing my lungs, and I was always sore.
I remember every moment of the night before and the morning of my surgery.
My mum and dad were running around the house worrying about all of the last minute to-do’s, and I was watching TV with my brother. At some point my parents joined us and we just all stayed up late (well, like 11PM – late for me, at the time) together.
That night, I remember going to bed thinking I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I thought I was going to be terrified. After months of worry, I had figured this would be the ultimate moment of panic and fear. But, I slept fine. And, when I woke up the next morning – I was calm as can be.
I suppose part of the calm is knowing that the surgery was inevitable. I have always been someone who finds some level of peace in inevitability. If I can’t change it, I can’t panic about it. Anyone else like that?
My surgery took a total of 13 hours. They had said the surgery would take approx. 8 hours, so when it went over by 5 hours my family was in a full-blown panic. I can’t even imagine how scary that would’ve been for them.
I had two vertebra’s removed, two titanium rods placed along my spine, screws fused to my spine, and parts of my ribs were taken out to surround the rods which would help them fuse and secure to my spine.
I woke up in the ICU (intensive care unit) highly medicated on morphine, super thirsty, and completely out of my mind. Apparently, I had a long ramble about how toque should be spelled “Took”. Groundbreaking, Bree.
After surgery, you are incredibly thirsty, and they will not give you water. I had a wonderful nurse though, named “Brian” who stayed by me and gave me all the ice-chips I wanted (which was a ton!), and he definitely lifted my spirits.
When I think about my surgery and that experience, I can’t help but think of Brian and feel so thankful that he was my ICU nurse. His kindness really made such a difference.
After a day or so the doctors told me it was about time to get me on my feet and try to walk over to the wheelchair.
Standing up for the first time after the surgery is simply painful. It’s the most uncomfortable, painful, and gross feeling I’ve ever had to go through.
To best describe it, I felt like my entire spine was going to fall out of my back. I could feel the whole exposed cut on my back tense up as I was lifted to be seated upright. Taking a few steps felt like an 8-hour workout, I was completely exhausted by the time I got to the chair.
My whole body ached, and I immediately asked to be moved back to the bed. Each day I was able to walk a bit further though, and after a couple of days, I was making my way through the halls.
The main test at the hospital for whether they will let you go home or not is if you’re able to walk up and down the stairs. For some reason, I found stairs to be the easiest task and so when it came to this task I breezed through it.
The next two months were the most difficult months of my life.
I had to re-learn how to get up from a chair, couch, my bed. I had to figure out a new way to pick things up after I dropped them.
Most annoyingly though: I had to re-learn endurance. Walking from the living room to our kitchen was a workout and I would feel absolutely out of breath by the time I got there. It felt like I would never be able to walk long distances again, heck it felt like even short ones were out of the question. Everything exhausted me.
These tasks were things I never thought of as difficult before, and now I had to put so much effort and focus into re-learning them. Sure enough though, within those first few months, I was able to re-train my body. Though it probably took about a year or two to feel totally normal, by the time I went back to school, I was able to walk to and from my classes without feeling totally gassed.
Let’s talk about the other thing that took a bit of time to get used to: my new battle scar.
I did experience teasing because of it. And I hated that. Grade 8 was a rough year, in fact, I think it was the worst year of my life. Some of the teasings were directly about my back, my scar, my surgery, but most of it was exploiting my healing process.
For example, “friends” skipping away saying they’d meet me at the other side of the school knowing that I wouldn’t be able to run to catch up and would likely spend my entire lunch trying to get there. Just mean bullshit, honestly.
Here’s the thing about that though… Some kids are just mean. They will find any “weak” point and use it. I used to find it really painful to think about this year, and I used to feel pretty angry about it. But the older I get, the more I realize that it was a lot more about them then it was me. I don’t know what was going on in their lives, but there had to be something to make them so cruel.
By the end of grade 8, I realized the healthiest thing to do for myself was to switch schools and get away from the people who viewed me as a target. It was the best decision I ever made.
I ended up meeting a group of people who saw my scar how I saw it, as a big part of my journey and a sign of strength. The teasing stopped, and rather than having names thrown at me over it, I had questions and interest. People genuinely wanted to hear my story.
I wear my scar proudly. It shows strength, and now I wouldn’t change it even if I could.
When you’re young, you worry about trivial things like maybe friends will be crappy, or maybe your crush will make fun of you.
When I was young, in grade 8, and going through my worst moments, I always worried that my “future boyfriend” would be disgusted by my scar. I thought that because that was the sort of crap that I was being told by these other kids.
Looking back on that thought, it makes me really wish I had taken my parents advice and switched school earlier because man – it would’ve saved me from some of those negative thoughts.
Over time, I realized that someone quality would love me even more for it because it is something that saved my life – which is exactly the type of person I’ve found and married.
Now, I am an active and happy person. I am thankful for the entire experience – the fear, the teasing, and the pain because I truly feel it has made me a more empathetic, sympathetic and compassionate person. Our life experiences shape us into who we become, and I know having this experience happen to me so early on has really helped define who I am and want to be.
I am also so thankful to my amazing doctor, Dr. Reilly. He really did save my life, and I am forever grateful for what he did for me. He had so much patience, love, and kindness towards my family and I. I honestly do not know if we all would’ve gotten through the stress and heartache of all of this without his immense support.
My experience with scoliosis: has taught me to try to live each day without fear and judgment, and to live with love and kindness.