It was the summer after fifth grade when I came down with my standard, once-a-year case of nasty bronchitis. My mom took me to the doctor, who ran a lung X-ray to confirm it before prescribing me antibiotics.
I remember thinking, 'And this is just the beginning. I'm going to feel like this every day.'
"Well, you do have bronchitis," the doctor said, "but you also have a pretty serious case of scoliosis." He held up the X-ray to show me an image of my spine, which was visibly crooked. I was 10 years old. Needless to say it was not the diagnosis I was expecting that day.
Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is a curvature of the spine that appears in late childhood or early adolescence. It's most common in young women, and children are at risk for a worsening curvature as they grow.
Although many schools conduct screenings to try to catch students' scoliosis early, mine wasn't one of them. Had anyone ever asked me to bend and touch my toes, they would've noticed that I had developed a significant hunch on the right side of my back.
The initial curve of my spine was significant enough that my doctor immediately referred me to an orthopedist, who said I'd need to start wearing a back brace right away. I was fitted for it later that week, a process that involved lying half-naked on a table while my torso was wrapped in wet gauze to create a plaster mold of my brace. As the gauze hardened around my skin, I couldn't help but feel like a human piñata. I remember thinking, And this is just the beginning. I'm going to feel like this every day.
My brace was essentially a plastic casing that wrapped around my torso and fastened with Velcro straps. It went up to my armpits and ended just below my hips, designed to hold my spine in place and stop the progression of the curve as I grew. I had to wear it for 23 hours a day, with one hour off for showering (or, in the summer, a quick trip to the pool).
In case adolescence isn't tumultuous enough, try starting middle school in a back brace! I wore the brace beneath my clothes, but it was still super obvious, especially when I was sitting, because the brace poked out the back and created a tent out of my shirt. Fortunately and much to my lasting surprise, although my friends joked about my brace and strangers asked me questions about it, no one ever bullied me for it.
But a year later, my doctor broke the news: The brace wasn't working. My spinal curve was progressing at the alarming rate of one degree a month, and it was only predicted to worsen, which could affect my organs, my reproductive system, and, of course, my posture.
The verdict was in: I needed surgery.
Frankly, I was relieved. The brace was a burden and an embarrassment, but more importantly, it wasn't protecting me from the debilitating pain of feeling my bones literally twist inside me. Some days, I woke up crying in agony, lying flat on the kitchen floor to try to stretch out the pain; my right shoulder blade was so deformed that it didn't even touch the ground. If surgery could put an end to my daily pain and discomfort, I was all for it.
If surgery could put an end to my daily pain and discomfort, I was all for it.
I was fortunate to live near Cleveland, home to some of the best hospitals in the country, and I knew I was in good hands with my surgeon, a renowned expert in pediatric scoliosis and spinal deformity. Over holiday break in seventh grade, I underwent spinal fusion surgery to straighten my spine and banish my brace.
Of course, recovering from such a major surgery is no picnic. It was painful and miserable and everything else you'd expect – but it straightened me out so well that it added three inches to my height overnight! I was left with a two-foot scar along on my back and two stainless steel rods to keep my spine in place.
As an adult, I still experience chronic back pain, which is to be expected of someone who's toting around a bunch of metal in her spine, but it's mostly manageable with Advil, yoga (yes, I can do yoga pretty well!), and massages.
Overall, I feel and look just like anyone else – sometimes I even forget about my scoliosis days. I can't say I remember my back brace fondly, but in some twisted way (pun intended), I'm thankful for the experience.
How many people can say they've literally come out of their shell?