It’s hard to think about what your life will look like in 20 years when you’re a 15-year-old with severe scoliosis who’s about to go into a life-altering surgery and is more concerned with what your high school basketball career will look like than the road further ahead. But lo and behold, here we are: today marks 20 years since my spinal fusion. Twenty years since my 52-degree thoracic curvature was straightened out to a still-curvy-but-much-improved 26 degrees in a six-hour surgery.
In the weeks following my surgery, I didn’t look at my spine—not because I was disgusted by it or couldn’t bare to see what had been done to me, but mostly out of fear that I’d pass out (true story—intense medical stuff often makes me queasy). I never once felt shame or anger about what my scar would eventually look like once the post-surgery dressing was gone and it began to heal. My scar is my story—my own personal tattoo that no one else in the world has. Of course I’m going to rock that! Last year for my great golden spinal-fusion-versary, I talked about scar pride and how I’ve never been afraid of wearing open back clothes or showing it off. I don’t like saying that I’m fearless regarding my scar; that would imply that I was fearful of it to begin with. My scar has accompanied me through so many things over the past 20 years, how could I not love it and be proud of it? I may not be able to feel it with my own hands because of limited shoulder mobility, and I may only see my scar through a mirror’s eyes or a camera’s lens, but I don’t need to rely on either of those things to know that it’s there and feel immense pride in what it represents and what I went through.
Scoliosis doesn’t define me, but it has certainly shaped me and those around me in more ways than I am even aware. Through the years, I never let this seemingly invisible deformity limit me, though it’s always been lurking in the background. I played varsity basketball and ran track in high school; worked at Walt Disney World as a character performer, wearing heavy costumes (as much as 70lbs), many of which sit right on your shoulders; travelled around the world on long flights; and have run countless 5Ks, 10 half marathons, and two marathons. While I cannot say that I was able to do all of these things pain-free, I never thought myself unable to tackle anything that came my way; I sought opportunities that took me out of my comfort zone and offered me chances to physically, mentally, and intellectually grow. Metal rods be damned.
Living with scoliosis is not without its challenges; occasional pain and discomfort is inevitable, even now at 20 years post-op. When most of your trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles have been sliced open, moved around, and stitched back up, they’ll never function quite the same way again; that’s just the reality. Along this unique journey, you learn how to manage each new ache through professional guidance, personal discipline, and individual discovery. When a muscle twinge pops up in a new place, I do exactly what I would when presented with any other challenge: I use the tools and knowledge in my arsenal to try to fix it. More often than not, I’m successful in keeping my muscles supple and happy. Though, on a few occasions, I’ve had to put my usual stubborn determination aside in favor of expert assistance. Seeking out help isn’t a weakness; it’s an admission that there are things you do not know and that you’re seeking help because have a desire to learn and change.
The realization that scoliosis would have various lifelong (and often unknown) effects on me only recently emerged, but with that, came the light-bulb moment: I, myself, am completely capable of doing something about it. This discovery was as life-changing as the surgery itself. You mean, I don’t have to sit idly by while my lat muscle angers the left side of my torso? If I pull my shoulder blades down to engage my lats while strength training, that will activate the muscles and cause them to be less angry while at rest? Imagine that. Harnessing the power of knowledge for self-improvement and personal growth is a wonderful thing, especially when it can have a profound effect on how you live your life day-to-day.
Muscles are a lot like people; they stretch and grow, become weak but retain their strength, get built up only to break down. They learn to adapt to stress and have a finite memory. If left dormant, they atrophy. I strive to ensure that I, along with my muscles, are always learning and being challenged. Whether you succeed or fail, challenges help you grow and instill the belief that you can. You can have a fused spine and still fulfill your dream of working for Disney as a character. You can train for 17 weeks and successfully run the New York City marathon even though it may be hard to breathe due to your restricted lung and rib cage capacity. You can proudly wear a backless wedding dress revealing your surgery scar and hard-won back muscles in front of your family and friends as you profess your love to your soon-to-be husband, who always has your back in more ways than one. With 20 stainless steel years behind me, I look forward to everything else that I have yet to discover about my back and am ready to tackle any curveballs thrown my way.