My name is Lauren Donnelley, I am a 15-year-old competitive swimmer, and I am a survivor of Scoliosis Spinal Fusion Surgery.
I stood in my pediatrician’s office, at the young age of 10, when I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis. My pediatrician sent me to Dr. David Skaggs, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, to get an X-Ray and be seen by an expert. Dr. Skaggs looked at my back, and said there was a slight curve to my spine, but that it was not too severe. I was told to come back six months later, to see if my curve was progressing. At the time, I did not think much of how my back looked and over the next six months, I did not realize the change in my spine’s curve. I just ignored it. I did not feel “crooked” and I did not want to think about it.
Six months later, I went back to my doctor, and sure enough, things had changed. The curve had gotten larger and more significant. The curves were at 34 degrees in the thoracic vertebrae and 49 degrees in my lumbar portion. I will never forget seeing that “S” shape on my X-ray. It was hard to believe it was a picture of me. Due to this quick progression, my surgeon thought that the best option for me was spinal fusion surgery. He started to explain the procedure, but honestly, I was not listening. I was angry. Angry at my doctor. Angry at my mom. Just angry. Why me? Why did I have to do this? But what I did hear, to make things worse, was that I would not be able to play sports or workout for months. As a competitive swimmer, being told this made me even more upset. I was an immature eleven year old at the time, and immediately did not want to have the surgery. I remember telling my mom, “it’s my choice and I’m not doing it,” but I knew that in the long run, having the surgery is what would be best for my health. Without the surgery, far worse things could happen to me. I could have issues breathing and maybe even walking and I would most likely have back pain for the rest of my life. My surgery was scheduled for December 20, 2016. Angry or not, I had to do it.
I had many preoperative appointments before surgery, to get my blood drawn, to take X-Rays, and to see my spine’s curvature progress. I was so anxious during these preoperative procedures that I actually passed out several times and had to have some additional tests to even make sure I could have surgery.
In late December, at eleven years old, I walked into the hospital, with uneven shoulders and a lopsided rib cage, and prepared for surgery. I put on my gown and was given an I.V. The idea of having surgery did not scare me but for some reason having an I.V. in my hand scared me immensely. I was nervous and frightened and started thinking about how horrible my scar would look. The thought of a long scar going down the middle of my back started to make me upset. In addition to thoughts about the scar, I wondered if I would be in pain for the rest of my life. Would I ever get back in the pool? I was scared of what I would be like when I woke up.
Six hours later, I woke up with two titanium rods and nineteen screws lined up against my spine. I was now fused from T4 to L3. I saw my new spine on an X-ray. Where an “S” used to be, was now a straight line, held solidly in place with lots of metal.
On my first day after surgery, I was able to stand up and walk around with help from my nurses. I hate hospitals, so I was very motivated to do “the requirements” so I could leave. On day three, two days ahead of schedule, I got to go home. I spent the majority of the next two to three weeks at home, sleeping in my bed, since it took a lot of energy for me to get up and move around. I wanted to get back in the pool as soon as I could, but I was told that I had to wait until my incision was completely healed. I had qualified for the Junior Olympic swim meet before surgery, and all I wanted was to race. And that is exactly what I did. I was in a suit, with the new addition of a 15 inch scar, clearly visible and I felt none of the emotions I thought I would feel. My scar was on display for all to see. And guess what? What I thought would be shame and embarrassment was actually pride. I am still me, only
Currently, I am starting my sophomore year of high school. It has been four years since surgery. I am grateful that I had spinal fusion surgery, as it changed my life for the better. I rarely feel pain in my back, and I am able to stay active, run, swim, and even go to the gym and lift weights. More importantly, I know I can make it through difficult times. Yes, I have a long scar on my back. It is a symbol of bravery and perseverance. In retrospect, having swimming taken away from me for a period of time due to surgery, made me learn to cherish my time in the pool. Swimming brings me happiness and a sense of accomplishment. I hope that by sharing my story of perseverance through the scoliosis journey, I can bring other patients peace, hope and calm their anxiety or fear.