Leah's story

[15 years of age at surgery]

Right thoracic left lumbar curve pattern - 40 degrees
Written by Leah's father

Leah had just turned fifteen in January when her dance coach noticed that her dance costume was not fitting correctly. Her coach had been walking behind her at a dance competition* and could see that her spine was curving and that one shoulder was lower than the other. She mentioned this to Leah’s mum, who was alarmed and mortified. Alarmed that this development had happened so quickly, and mortified that she hadn’t noticed this herself. But then what mum of a fifteen year-old ever really sees their daughter that closely. Mostly they are fully dressed.

I booked her in to see her GP and arranged an x-ray. Definitely scoliosis was the verdict with a Cobb angle in the 30s. A visit to a specialist was arranged as quickly as possible and by April a set of “bendy” x-rays, a scan and several other tests had been conducted. The specialist advised that Leah’s curve was too far progressed for bracing to be very helpful, and visits to physiotherapists and chiropractors confirmed advice that physio and manipulation were unlikely to hold the curve at all. Wait and see was the advice.

In October another set of x-rays was done and the specialist was concerned that her Cobb angle was now over 40. His advice was to operate.

This was the moment that we, as parents, had been dreading. Here was a perfectly fit and healthy fifteen year old facing an intrusive operation with all the pain and risks that it would involve. Was it absolutely necessary? What was the likely long term effect of her scoliosis if no operation was done? How would she be in her twenties, thirties and forties coping with life with a backbone with a 40+ degree curve?

Information was hard to find but in the end a decision to go with the surgeon’s advice was taken. Leah had the final say and she just wanted to get on with it. She had done her own research.

Fortunately, a spot on his operating list had been reserved earlier in the year and in November Leah had her surgery. Her operation was successful and she was up and walking within five days. Her x-ray showed a textbook result with her Cobb angle now well below 10 degrees.

By her sixteenth birthday in January, she was almost back to normal. No pain-killers, no ill effects from her time in hospital, standing three centimeters taller than before her operation and starting to get back into life.

She went back to school in February and started training for her next dancing competition, a solo scheduled for early March. Gently at first, but by the end of February, fifteen weeks after the operation, she was feeling almost normal. She admitted to being unable to do some moves that she used to be able to do, but with clever choreography and some extra moves done with a straight back, she and her coach were confident she was ready to get back on stage.

You could have heard a pin drop when she appeared on stage at her first solo competition. Everyone knew what she had been through over the previous three months, and no one expected her back dancing competitively. But if nothing else, Leah is a determined young woman, a champion dancer in previous years and a state representative at the nationals for the past five years. She was determined to win, and win she did. When the places were announced, the theatre exploded in applause, the tears flowed and every other competitor rushed to embrace her.

It was a seminal moment for Leah and us, but more importantly, it demonstrated to everyone that having spinal surgery should not necessarily diminish a young woman’s capability nor her dreams for her achievements.

* For the technically-minded, Leah participates in Australian calisthenics, a competitive dance sport popular across Australia but with its centre of gravity in South Australia and Victoria. The girls compete in teams of eight in several different dance styles: aesthetics, march, clubs, rods, free-ex and fancy. It is very physically-demanding and challenging. In addition, girls can choose to perform solo at special solo competitions.

 

Leah's x-rays

leah_preop

Image 1. This x-ray shows the pre-op curve in October 2016

leah_postop

Image 2. This image shows the post-op x-ray in November 2016.