Find Your Steel | Scoliosis Awareness Month

I’ve written a lot about my scoliosis journey over the years (here, then here, and don’t forget here). It’s been one of, if not the, single-most impactful, defining experience in my life. Every year on my spinal fusion-versary (February 19) I get a little nostalgic and reminisce about various things: the Bath and Body Works warm vanilla sugar lotion I always used (which still brings memories back whenever I smell it), snacking on Fresca and Mini Chips Ahoy while watching Remington Steele on PAX after a half day at school, the awesome research paper I wrote in college about if scoliosis is genetic….but I digress.

In the last year or so, I discovered that June is Scoliosis Awareness Month (who knew, right?). Social media obviously wasn’t around during my pre- and post-surgery years and so far this month I have been blown away by all the scoliosis stories I’ve seen on social and how easily we can all be “connected” (often by surgical stainless steel, wink, wink) by this shared sense of community around our spinal deformities. Model Martha Hunt’s scoliosis story is one that I stumbled upon a few years ago from simply looking at #scoliosis on Instagram. A Victoria’s Secret model who has scoliosis and had a spinal fusion but still walks that runway like a badass? Inspiring!

So what is Scoliosis Awareness Month about? The obvious answer is to create awareness about the deformity, how you can spot it, and non-operative ways to treat it with bracing and other technologies. Speaking of bracing, check out this video of a 3D printer making a back brace: These 3D Printed Braces Give us a Better Way to Treat Scoliosis. How cool is that?! I was lucky enough to have two sets of clothes—brace and non-brace—as a teenager and it was just awesome. Yes, I was the kid who wore her brace under her clothes. I still have one pair of jeans from my brace days that I wore quite frequently; one of the Velcro straps made a hole in the denim on the back waistband and for some reason I can’t part with them.

Another answer: Scoliosis Awareness Month is a month devoted to connecting those who suffer from it and sharing and celebrating the stories of the people who’ve been affected. There was only one other person I knew of in my high school of nearly 900 students who had scoliosis surgery and wore a brace. It’s a common ailment, especially in girls, but I can only imagine how different the social and community aspect of my experience would have been had social media been around when I was 14; being able to connect with other teens who’d gone through the same grueling surgery and recovery as I had? What a thought.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my scoliosis experience was relatively mild compared to most. I wasn’t in any pain and despite awful posture in a lot of photos and a bit of a left-leaning stature on occasion, you’d have no idea that I had scoliosis at all, let alone an advanced stage of it. We elected to have the corrective surgery done at the recommendation of my doctor when it was discovered that one of my curves had increased to over 50 degrees when I was 14, despite the previous year of bracing.

Would I have been in pain had I not had the spinal fusion in high school? Perhaps. Who’s to say. Do I have pain now? Sure. I’m a 30-something millennial with a desk job and a 90+ minute one way weekday commute who’s about to start training for her first marathon. Of course I’ve got pains (yup, we’re going with a plural on that one). Some, but not all of them, are related to my shoulders and back; the surgeons did slice everything open, after all, so those muscles are naturally weaker now. I’m much more diligent about doing the exercises I learned in PT two years ago—they’ve significantly helped improve my posture and back and shoulder strength (I’m up to using 5lb weights now after starting at 3lbs!). Though I still have a lot of room to grow and improve, I try to make sure I do sets of front raises, lateral raises and rows, bent-over flys, and banded pull-aparts at least 1-3 times a week.

My June celebration of this life-defining deformity is simple: take care of myself and keep working hard on my posture, building the muscles in my back and shoulders, and rocking my awesome scar with pride.

Not that I don’t do that already—it took me about a year post-surgery before I was comfortable wearing halter tops/exposing my scar—because I am not afraid to show it off (Hello, backless dresses. It’s me, Natalie. I believe we’ve met before). When I was in undergrad, I even did a photo essay for a class project on surgery scars, including my own—the relatively thin line down my spine (all thoracic, some lower cervical, but no lumbar) and the much thicker scar on my right side (by the dimple…intentional?) where they scraped bone from my hip to fuse with the rods.

I wear my scars with confidence and am proud to carry them with me everywhere I go; they’ve been part of my story for the last 17 years and will be forever going forward, including a big first for me—running 26.2 miles around New York City in November.

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