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Patient Stories

Ava Tyler

“You have a 57-degree thoracic curve and a 45-degree lumbar curve.” This was the phrase the young nurse told me as my world seemed to fall apart in front of me with the heartbreaking news that I would need spinal surgery. That short phrase was earth-shattering as fear, curiosity, and anger filled my mind. The worst thoughts immediately came to mind: what if I die during surgery? What if I become paralyzed? As those thoughts ran around my mind, a completely emotionless face was shown to the surgeon. All I could do was sit in silence letting my world fall apart in front of my eyes.

In October of 2017, I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, which means that at some point during my growth my spine developed a large curve, instead of growing in a linear direction. My family and I decided to have this surgery performed in January of the following year, which would require me to miss about a month of school. Each week approaching my surgery entailed a new doctor’s appointment and a trip to Rady’s children hospital. In the head of a 14-year-old girl, I was invincible. “How much would it hurt?” I thought. “The recovery won’t be difficult”.

I was wrong.

I would not be able to run for six weeks, and the most devastating was the fact I would not be able to play tennis for three months. I had not yet realized how much my life would change in the most subtle ways. January 8, 2018, I was wheeled through two hospital doors labeled “operating room, authorized personnel only” as I gave my mom and dad one last hug as tears ran down all our faces. “Ava, count backward from 10 for us”, the nurse remarked in a soothing voice. From this point on for the next two weeks, I was helpless. Every simple and everyday task was almost unachievable for me. All I wanted back during the recovery period was my independence. How could something so obvious and simple be taken away from you? I figured that no one would ever be able to take my independence. I figured no one would ever be able to take my strength. My mental fortitude was pushed to new limits every day as hopelessness filled my mind. All I wanted was the ability to function on my own and without pain. I learned in those few days that some of the most simple tasks could be taken away from me in the span of counting down from ten. Before having surgery I never thought about eating dinner with my family or standing up. These were just everyday undertakings that I figured I would always be able to accomplish.

Every day during my recovery was a struggle and there was always a new obstacle that I was determined to overcome. My recovery started with the most minuscule tasks such as walking up the stairs or back and forth in my backyard. Each day I added more, walking for five minutes straight turned to ten minutes until three months passed and I was finally able to play the thing I loved most, tennis. When I got back to competing I was frustrated with myself, my stamina was not where it used to be and I knew that I needed to perform, as my high school tennis tryouts were approaching. In addition, I knew that the team was very competitive and only a select number of girls would make varsity. However, after a grueling two weeks of tryouts, the coach pulled me aside and gave me some exciting news, I had made the team. I was filled with a new level of pride and exuberance, my dedication had paid off, and with two metal rods to now add to the challenge. As we wrapped up our season my team was ranked number one in San Diego and became the first team in my school’s history to win CIF’s in the open division. It was not this moment, however, when I realized my accomplishments. In the individual portion of CIF’s my doubles partner and I were in the quarterfinals and ended up losing the match. My partner and I walked off of the center court and a coach from another team approached me. He looked at me with a tear in his eye, he explained to me how much of an inspiration I am, and said that he never imagined someone less than six months after having spinal surgery could be where I am. “Where am I?” I thought, “Where am I?”. To me it did not seem that spectacular, I had just lost a match. I thanked the stranger and walked back to my mom. That moment sits with me today, as I look back and understand how I exceeded any expectations that surgeons or parents had for me. To a scared girl, with a back bandaged top to bottom, walking around the recovery floor of Rady’s children hospital, I say: it gets so much better, you can do absolutely anything you put your mind to. I tell her that she will accomplish more than anyone ever thought. To her, I
say that this is just a moment in time, and all the pain she feels now will go away. She will stand on center court with her team, friends, and family surrounding her and she will have a big smile painted across her face.

Having scoliosis has taught me more than anything I have ever experienced before, showing me how strong I truly am and enlightening me on the many privileges I have. Prior to having surgery I never understood how valuable my strength and independence was, but today I am a more resilient and grateful person with a new perspective. Scoliosis bent me but it never broke me.

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