When Idiopathic Scoliosis Threw Me For A Curve, I Swung Back

When Idiopathic Scoliosis Threw Me For A Curve, I Swung Back

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

Jessie races her horse following surgery for idiopathic scoliosis and tethered cord. Photo: Puhl’s Photography

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.

Learn more about the Crawford Spine Center by visiting our webpage or calling the Spine Nurses Hotline at 513-803-2750.

Editor’s note: cover and bio images courtesy of Coley & Co Photography. 

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Jessie Ford Coots

About the Author: Jessie Ford Coots

Jessie Ford Coots is the owner + designer behind Untethered, a boutique graphic design studio in the Midwest that specializes in branding. When she isn't designing, she owns two quarter horses and travels throughout the country, competing in barrel racing events. She lives outside of Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and is a former scoliosis patient at Cincinnati Children's.

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  1. Wendy January 10, 19:28
    Thank you for sharing your story. It is so great that your surgeries were a success and that you had such wonderful doctors and medical professionals.
    • Jessie Ford Coots January 13, 14:32
      Thank you so much, Wendy! Every aspect of Cincinnati Children's was nothing but a wonderful experience for me and my family. I highly recommend them (especially their spine center.) :)
  2. Harriett Burroughs January 17, 09:20
    I too share your experience Jessie. I had scoliosis surgery back in 1977 by Dr. Ginestraus (everyone called him Dr. "G") at the age of 18. I had a single curve at a 73 degree angle. I'm now 58 and doing great. Your story hit home with me and I couldn't refrain from commenting. I'm so happy to hear your successes. Be encourage and stay strong. You're doing great. Thank you for sharing!
    • Jessie Ford Coots March 02, 22:46
      Thanks so much, Harriett! It's so interesting to see how the times and technology have changed from one decade to the next, when it comes to doing these spinal fusions (and with medicine in general.) Hopefully they will keep improving and patients can make full recoveries even quicker years from now! :)
    • Jayne June 01, 01:29
      Harriett, I to was a patient of Dr. G in the 70's but I was fortunate that my scoliosis never progressed too bad. My older sister on the other hand, in 1965-1966 was one of Dr. G's youngest patients. I was 3 at the time but I remember my sister having the first of 3 surgeries when she was 12. she laid flat on her back in a body cast for 6 month at one time. She says that during Dr. visits, their were many Dr.'s who came in and observed her treatment and recovery and that several times pictures were taken of her and she had to hold a card over her eyes (to obscure her face). She had several vertebra fused and has a scar down her spine about 2-3 inches wide, as well as about a 4" scar above her buttocks on each side of her spine. She cannot bend over from the waist like most people. Mom and dad were told that if they did not do surgery on her that it would progress so badly that she would probably be dead by age 25 because of the stress on her heart and lungs or that she would be in so much pain she would be suicidal. I remember once (I think it was her last surgery) that when my mom and grandma went to roll her over to change the bedsheets on the bed, she was laying in a pool of blood, as her incision had come open, and the ambulance had to rush her back to the hospital. I was 3 at the time and even though I'm 56 now I clearly remember crying and asking what was wrong with my sissy and no one would tell me as they were rushing her to the back of the ambulance to get her back to the hospital. Was a scary time.
  3. Bobbie January 23, 13:04
    I too had scoliosis surgery although mine was caused by a hit to my back. The hit was so hard that it caused a tumor to grow. I began feeling tingling in my toes which eventually became numb. In 6 weeks I went completely paralized from my waist down. I had to be carried to the hospital and doctors offices. I was 11 years old. I had the tumor removed, which they thought was cancer, but after 1 long week the results came back benign. I learned to walk again through physical therapy and returned to school for 6th grade. The following fall, I fell at school and could not stand up. My father carried me back to the hospital where they discovered my spine had colapsed. A few weeks later I had a spinal fusion. A few years later is was decided to have another spinal fusion. This time was more severe including halo traction and a body cast. After 2 years I was out of a cast and braces. I am now 57 years old have 3 children and 3 grand children. I am doing well but my spine will never be completely straight. I have issues with breathing and some pain. But I am alive and happy and thats what counts. God bless you!!!
    • Jessie Ford Coots March 02, 22:48
      Oh my goodness, Bobbie! What an incredible story that you have. I'm so sorry to hear about all of the struggles but it's certainly brought you to a great place in your life with your babies AND grandbabies! So glad to hear that you are still going strong and most importantly, happy! :)
  4. Cindy June 05, 06:38
    It’s great for your success, but unfortunately that is not the case for me! I have had idiopathic scoliosis since birth and am now almost 68. My Orthpedic surgeon said surgery is out of the question because of so much going on inside me and would take up to 2 yrs. recovery if at all. So I just do what I can and let the rest up to my Heavenly Father to take care of me. Best to you in your future!!
  5. Greg February 13, 15:47
    This is a great message. Even those who don't have surgery worry about getting back into regular life. I loved reading this article about getting lasting results.