This post was originally shared in 2017. Charlie, now 18, is headed off to college at Concordia this fall. He concluded his senior year by winning one more state championship with his adaptive softball team. All is well.
Deb Schultz never considered herself a dog person. When her youngest son, Charlie, turned 13, “I thought I would escape having a pet,” she admits. But all that changed during Charlie's halo traction and spinal fusion procedure to address his severe kyphosis (a forward curving of the spine). During his seven-week inpatient stay at Gillette Children’s, Charlie began browsing dog rescue websites.
“I had a feeling he would twist my arm and we would become dog owners,” laughs Schultz, “especially when his nurses started telling him about their rescue dogs!”
Rare Condition Leads to Longtime Doctor
Although Charlie's love of dogs began at a young age, he’s been a Gillette patient far longer. Charlie has a rare bone disorder that doesn’t have a formal diagnosis. His condition causes short stature and a host of orthopedic issues. He’s been seeing orthopedic surgeon Stephen Sundberg, MD, most of his life. The two know one another well.
“I have been taking care of Charlie since 2001,” says Sundberg. “He’s smart as a whip; a really delightful and interactive human being.” Sundberg adds that Charlie's spine has been especially challenging to treat. “He’s required multiple spine procedures, both orthopedic and neurosurgical.”
During Charlie's childhood, Sundberg performed several surgeries to address problems with his hips. “One of his hips was 75 percent out of its joint,” says Schultz. “He would be walking and all of a sudden, he’d have to stop because his hip hurt so badly. Now he can walk more easily and with less pain.”
Straightening Charlie Out
When Charlie developed kyphosis in his teens, Sundberg referred him to spine surgeon Tenner Guillaume, MD. By age 13, Charlie's curvature had worsened to 110 degrees and was compromising his health. A normal amount of kyphosis is up to about 50 degrees. “His lung capacity was affected because he was so hunched over,” explains Schultz. It was affecting his quality of life, too—Charlie has played for the Dakota Hawks, an adaptive softball team, since seventh grade. He wasn’t able to walk or run without becoming winded.
Guillaume recommended Charlie undergo two consecutive and complex procedures: six weeks of halo traction followed by spinal fusion surgery. First, a “halo” shaped metal ring would be secured to Charlie's skull using pins. Traction weights and pulleys would gradually and painlessly straighten his spine. Then, Guillaume would fuse his vertebrae and implant metal rods to prevent future curvature.
The halo “really straightened him out,” remarks Schultz. But due to the complexity of the procedure, Charlie needed to be closely monitored. This made him a favorite among Gillette nurses and Child Life staff, who played card games with him to help pass the time.
He also passed the time searching for the perfect dog—and pleading with his mom for a furry addition to the family.
First One Dog, Now Another
Charlie picked out a rescue dog while still at Gillette recovering from his spinal fusion. Once discharged, he didn’t waste time. “He got out on a Friday and the next day, in a wheelchair, we went to a pet rescue and brought home a dog,” recalls Schultz. “He loved that dog.”
Sadly, that dog has since passed away. Charlie's now the proud owner of a new dog, a Beagle named Henry. “All of the doctors ask about his dog, because that’s what they talked about while he was in the hospital,” says Schultz. “I think the dog has really helped him out.”
A Star Athlete
Charlie's halo traction and spinal fusion have improved his life substantially. For one, it brought Charlie and Henry together. It also means he can be active again. “It’s changed my life in lots of ways. How I walk and my posture. I can play sports now,” says Charlie, whose spinal curvature has improved to 55 degrees. His adaptive softball team, the Dakota Hawks, won the state softball tournament last year. Charlie was all-tournament and all-conference, with the team’s highest batting average of .837.
He can also walk Henry—and walk he does! Sundberg recently challenged him to take a half-mile walk with Henry each day. He notes that, at this point, Charlie's major surgeries are behind him. “He’s past the big surgeries and can be more of a normal kid,” says Sundberg. “When I can engage him talking about fun things, like his dog, that really is the cool part.”
“I don’t think he’d be walking if he hadn’t had all of the surgeries,” says Schultz of her son. “I think he’d be in a wheelchair. His team at Gillette has been a godsend.”
Editor's note: Check out Charlie on WCCO-TV's "Kylie's Kids" feature!