As Deb Snyder sat in the patient waiting area while her daughter Erika completed her follow-up X-rays, she overheard the conversation of the mother and daughter next to her. From the sound of it, they were beginning the process that she and Erika had gone through only months previously.
Erika had been diagnosed with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) earlier that year, and had recently had surgery to fuse her spine. When Erika was done with her appointment, Deb initiated a conversation between the two families.
“The girl was about the same age as Erika,” Deb says. “Based upon how well things had gone for us at Gillette, I thought it would be nice for them to hear from someone who had been in their shoes.”
The girls hit it off right away.
In January of 2016, Erika, then 11, was shopping for clothes with her mother.
“I was standing behind her and saw that her right shoulder blade seemed to be sticking out at a 45 degree angle,” Deb says. “She had gone through a growth spurt, and had grown about four inches over the previous six months, but that was the first time I noticed anything.”
Deb took Erika to a local medical provider, where flags were raised immediately. Erika had an X-ray taken in February, and was diagnosed with scoliosis.
The Snyders were soon referred to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, and scheduled an appointment with spine surgeon Tenner Guillaume, MD.
“Dr. Guillaume told us that Erika had a thoracic curve of 45 degrees and a lumbar curve of 37 degrees. He said that we could opt for bracing, but that it would be very likely Erika would require surgery in the future,” Deb recalls. “This was hard for Erika to hear, and she was very reticent to talk about the concept of surgery. We decided to try bracing and wait to see how things progressed.”
“The Hardest Part is the Going”
When Erika and her mother went back to see Guillaume in May of 2016, it became clear that bracing alone would not be enough. Obviously, the idea of taking your child in for surgery would frighten most parents, but what is less explored is what an individual child experiences when facing surgery at such a young age.
As Erika explains the process, this was something that took her time to come to grips with.
Erika: When I first heard the words “surgery,” it really scared me. It was never something I had ever thought about, and it was overwhelming.
Even getting the brace made me nervous. Not so much the process, but I was worried people would see it and treat me differently. I play basketball and several other sports, so it was pretty impossible to ignore.
When I found out that I would need surgery later in the year, it was disappointing. I knew that I was doing the best that I could, so it was hard. But having that time was helpful; I had a little time to get used to things.
As the summer started, I just realized that I wanted to move on. I didn’t want to have to miss school at the beginning of the year and come back behind. I wanted to be done with it. That really helped at the next appointment with Dr. Guillaume. He was really nice, I wasn’t as scared, and we were able to talk about things more. After that I was ready to go.
The Surgery and Recovery
The Snyders scheduled Erika’s surgery for the earliest possible date, and Erika had the surgery in early August. The procedure Guillaume performed fused Erika’s spine from her T3 –L1 vertebrae.
“She was up and walking that day. Everyone was calling her a rock star.” Deb says. “Dr. Guillaume wanted to give her as much mobility as possible. He said that if they straightened her thoracic curve, the lumbar would straighten out too, kind of like pulling a string. At her follow up appointment, her thoracic curve was 15 degrees, and her lumbar curve was only nine.”
Straight Shooter, Respected on All Sides
Though her recovery took time, and she’ll admit that she had some difficulty sitting on the sidelines for a bit, Erika is back to being the active child she is. This past September she was able to return to playing basketball, and her team took fourth place in state.
She also participates in baseball, tennis, golf, plays three instruments, rides roller coasters, and other than abstaining from hockey and football, has no other restrictions.
The rest is best coming from her.
Erika: I had to stay in the hospital for a few days, but the recovery wasn’t all bad. My whole family came up, and it was good to know that everyone was there for me.
After a little while when I was able to return to my usual activities, I started to notice some changes. One came when I started playing basketball and realized that for the first time, I was shooting straight. Due to my scoliosis, I had been overcompensating.
It took a little getting used to, but all of the sudden I was shooting more confidently. After going through the surgery, I realized that I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I was.
I think the people at Gillette played a big part in helping me realize that. Not just in terms of the surgery, but also with the positive encouragement from the therapists, fun nurses, doctors, and everyone.
When I talked to the girl my mom introduced me to after my follow up appointment, it was nice to share my experiences and make her and her mom feel more safe and secure. I told them that the hardest part is the going. When you have all these friendly faces checking up on you, once you get there they make sure that everything goes OK.