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I was a dancer. To be more specific, I was a ballet dancer. From a very young age, I wanted to be a ballerina.
Spin. Leap. Twist. First position. Leap again. Legs together.
Like many young girls, I donned the soft pink slippers and took pride in knowing the difference between an eleve and releve. Dance became my life. I lived for the long hours of practice and the physically intensive sessions at the barre, working towards that one end goal of becoming one of the premier ballerinas.
When I was selected to begin pointe work, I knew my hard work was paying off. To go on pointe, I had to get a routine physical. It came as a shock when during the physical, my doctor told me I had scoliosis.
What was scoliosis? How had I not known before? For those unfamiliar, scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt just before puberty. Even worse, my doctor told me my case was pretty severe.
The news was devastating. Who ever heard of a ballerina with a crooked spine? After being diagnosed, my doctor referred me to a specialist to determine whether I would need surgery or a back brace. The curvature in my spine was pretty severe, but I was given a back brace which I would have to wear for a few years, unless the curvature of my spine progressed, in which case I would need surgery.
Being in a back brace was bad enough, but the uncertainty was worse. There was no guarantee that the back brace would fix my spine’s curvature, and back surgery would most likely impact my dancing career.
I refused to quit, and for the next two years I continued my dancing and wore my brace, hoping that it would fix my spine. As if high school weren’t already difficult enough. I attempted to hide the brace by wearing extra-large sweaters and baggy pants, but I was only allowed to remove it for showering and dancing.
By my sophomore year of high school, the curvature of my spine was not improving, and after years of enduring the embarrassment of the back brace, I ended up still needing a surgery that would most likely end any hope of a dancing career. By my sophomore year in high school, my curve had progressed to about 52 degrees in the top curve and 45 degrees in the bottom curve.
In the year 2000, I had my first spinal fusion surgery. Spinal fusion is a surgical process where two or more vertebrae are fixed in place with rods, hooks, wires, or screws and are attached to the curved part of the backbone in order to straighten the spine.
Following my first surgery and after several months of physical therapy, I began to experience discomfort near the top of my spine. I went in for a checkup, only to find out that the hooks that had been placed to keep the rod in place at the top of my spine had become dislodged.
By my junior year of high school, I had my second spinal fusion in order to correct the first. Only two weeks after that surgery, we discovered that my upper level hooks had dislodged again. My third spinal fusion was only a few months later where my surgeon removed the upper instrumentation in my spine and just the lower hooks were left in place to keep my spine straight.
Before the conclusion of my junior year, I ended up having three spinal fusion surgeries. It was after the third surgery that my doctor determined a dancing career would be difficult due to the limited flexibility I retained in my spine following the multiple fusions and instrumentation placed to keep it aligned. It was heartbreaking news to receive.
As devastating as the news was, I realized I’d have to accept the reality of my situation and focus all of my energy on fully correcting my severe scoliosis so that I could move on with life. Not being able to dance was heartbreaking, but it also forced me to pursue other passions. Passions that didn’t require an abnormally flexible back, one not reinforced by titanium.
Listening to the encouragement of my high school Advanced Placement Calculus teacher, I rediscovered a passion for math and science, and began courting the idea of a career in engineering.
It was during my freshman year of college that I first discovered biomedical engineering and began to consider the field as a possible career. From my coursework, I learned how engineers developed the instrumentation similar to the tools and devices used to correct my own spine and from that moment, I decided this was what I wanted to do.
My dancing dreams may have been permanently shelved, but I was now determined to become a biomedical engineer and help people like me with spinal deformities. During college, through an essay about my scoliosis, I was able to gain a research position with a professor working on a rod-bending device for scoliosis surgery.
Throughout college, the pain in my back kept increasing, but I decided not to have another surgery because I wanted to graduate with my degree in four years. Issues with my spine had already deflated my ballet dreams, and I was determined not to let scoliosis hold me back again.
Working through the pain, I successfully graduated from Virginia Tech in 2006 with dual degrees in Engineering Science and Mechanics, with a focus in Biomechanics, and a second degree in Mathematics. After college, I continued my quest to work on developing instrumentation to help individuals with scoliosis. I applied to many different spinal companies after college and was offered a position with a company that is passionate about improving the treatment of spinal deformities. Through my new job, I met many amazing spinal surgeons, including the doctor that would become my surgeon.
A couple of years out of college, my symptoms progressed to the point where I knew I needed another surgery. I was only 24 years old but I was out of breath walking up a flight of stairs, my feet sometimes felt like they were numb, and at the worst like they were on fire.
I didn't want to live the rest of my life like that, so I made an appointment in New York City with one of the surgeons I had met through my job at K2M.
After my mother and I talked with my surgeon about my previous surgeries and my symptoms, he developed a plan to fix my spine. I fully trusted my surgeon and knew that I could trust the engineering behind the instrumentation, because I had worked on some of the components they were going to use on my spine during the surgery. So, in August 2008, I had my fourth spinal surgery where I had 28 screws implanted for my scoliosis and spondylolisthesis.
When I woke up from my surgery, I received a DVD from all of my co-workers wishing me a fast recovery and a straight spine. My surgeon straightened my spine so much during the surgery that I grew three inches. My mother said she didn't even recognize the X-rays hanging from my bed. She told me she thought to herself, "Why would someone with such a beautiful spine need all of those screws in their back?"
After looking at me in the recovery room, my mother quickly realized that those were my X-rays and that was my beautifully straight spine!
Before my surgery, sitting for long periods was difficult but now I can sit though hours of lecture without discomfort. I also rediscovered dance, and am now capable of taking salsa dance lessons and have enjoyed learning other forms of ballroom dance.
Thanks to my fourth and most recent surgery, I was able to visit Ghana through a company-sponsored service trip with my surgeon to help in spine surgical cases at a hospital there. It was such a rewarding experience being able to interact with such amazingly inspiring and brave children, and providing them the same treatments that gave me my life back.
I recently graduated with my master's degree from Virginia Tech and Georgetown University in Biomedical Technology Development and Management. Since having my final surgery, I have continued to work as a biomedical engineer on spinal deformity instrumentation with K2M, and am continually reminded of how lucky I am to have found a job where I not only help myself but thousands of other people around the world with similar spinal deformities.
The experience has been truly rewarding, and as someone who received a new lease on life after my own surgery, it is a special feeling knowing I am part of a process that can give that to someone else suffering the same way I had.