In May of 2003, I was given a diagnosis that would change my life forever.
One day I woke up a healthy and active 16-year-old girl, finishing my junior year of high school, preparing for a 10-day summer trip to Italy with my Latin Club, about to enter my senior year of high school and deciding what college I wanted to attend.
I was the editor of my high school newspaper and took dance lessons. I was born into a horse showing family, which enabled me to experience a unique lifestyle of traveling and competitive barrel racing.
The next day, I was told that I had adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which simply meant that my spine was curved for no known reason.
Life can change in a moment
Although I never experienced pain and was seemingly healthy, my mom had been noticing a small hump developing on the lower left side of my back. I honestly wasn’t too worried, but to appease her concern, we scheduled an appointment with an orthopedic doctor in my hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio. I had no idea that my life was going to change the moment that we walked in the door and saw the first x-ray.
What it revealed threw us into shock. My spine was literally shaped like an “S.”
The scoliosis so severe that I had curvature exceeding 50 degrees.
Because of this, I was beyond the possibility of bracing or any other corrective measures. I was faced with the only option: a spinal fusion surgery. My back would be cut open and the surgeon would literally straighten my spine, with the help of two stainless steel rods that would be placed on either side. I was referred to Dr. Mehlman at Cincinnati Children’s.
Planning for surgery when it’s your only option
We scheduled our first appointment with Dr. Mehlman and immediately made a game plan. My surgery was set for August of 2003. We spent much of the summer making trips to Cincinnati for pre-op appointments and autologous (self) blood donations.
My back threw me an additional curve when the curvature progressed even more in the last few weeks before surgery. I was temporarily referred to a neurosurgeon there who found that I had a tethered spinal cord. This meant that it was being held down tightly at its base and not free to move and function as normal cords do.
With this, I had to have another surgery scheduled first, so that it could be taken care of before Dr. Mehlman performed the fusion. In September of 2003, I underwent a lumbar laminectomy, which literally “untethered” my cord. Once this surgery was done, I was rescheduled for the fusion two months later on November 13.
When that day finally came, I was in the operating room for nine hours and the surgery was split into two parts. Dr. Alvin Crawford removed some discs and ribs on my right side. The ribs were crushed up and used as bone graft, which was put back into me, to help fuse the rods to my spine. Once he was done, Dr. Mehlman did the fusion. The entire day was a 100% success. I have a special place in my heart for all of the staff and doctors, especially Dr. Mehlman. It’s because of them that I succeeded and recovered so well.
Getting back to “my normal”
Life was hard and painful the first few weeks. Even though I was 17, I still couldn’t shower myself, walk
up the stairs, go to school or drive. Six months went by as I slowly recovered and in May of 2004, I danced in my final senior dance recital. Initially we weren’t sure that would be possible. I graduated high school and began my freshman year at Ohio University in the fall. And, after staying off horses for over a year, in January of 2005, I swung my leg over one again. Three months later, I was back in the arena.
When I originally faced the idea of surgery, it wasn’t certain that I would even ride again, let alone compete. But, I did it. After graduating from Ohio University in 2008, I worked as a graphic designer in corporate, non-profit and agency sectors. In January of 2016, I took the leap to full-time self-employment and opened Untethered, a boutique graphic design and branding studio that I run from my home. (Does that term “untethered” sound familiar?)
13 years later and still going strong
In many ways, 13 years can seem like a lifetime ago and it can also feel like yesterday. Today, I’m 30. I’ve grown and I’ve aged. I got married on May 14, 2016 to my wonderful husband, Adam. We moved to Georgetown, Indiana, a few miles outside of Louisville, Kentucky. We live on a 5-acre horse farm and I still travel and compete extensively.
On our special day, I wore an open-back wedding gown (see cover image above!). It wasn’t just pretty. It was a way for me to show off my cherished scar. My precious battle wound.
Going through a major surgery proved to me (and others around me) how tough I am. I have a high pain tolerance and you can’t keep me down for very long. I’m strong-willed, bull-headed and undoubtedly believe that there is nothing I can’t do.
I’m always on the go, working, planning, setting goals and living as “normal” of a life as I desire. I will forever have the metal in me, as well as the scar, but I would do it all over again and not change a thing.
My spinal fusion experience only increased my drive, strength, faith, work ethic and more and taught me that nothing can hold me back — not even my own back.
Editor’s note: cover and bio images courtesy of Coley & Co Photography.