Spinal fusions: Fixing backs with titanium

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Having titanium rods and screws fused to individual vertebrae, and cadaver bone placed in between the spaces hoping for growth, and losing two pints of blood and 15 pounds, sounds pretty gruesome. But for several BYU students, it also represents the cure for spinal problems.

The crippling disease of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) has been around for as long as human beings have existed. Surprisingly, the technology for correcting a deformed spine has not changed in the past 25 years. Rods and screws are fused to the spine to straighten and correct curvatures.

[pullquote]”Spiritually, my surgery and the whole bracing treatment was very eye-opening. I learned to really trust the Lord that things will work out. I felt so lucky to live in a time and place where I could find treatment for what could have been a crippling abnormality.” — Joelle Liberman[/pullquote]

Amber Richardson had a surgery that took eight hours to complete, followed by a week in a hospital. After leaving the hospital, Richardson was still confined to a month of bed rest and a year of recovery and restrictions. Richardson was diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 14, but as the condition of her spine weakened the only alternative was a spinal fusion surgery. Richardson debated having the surgery for years and said making the decision took a lot of thinking.

“I freaked out initially,” Richardson said. “We decided in June of 2009 to proceed with the surgery, which would follow the next summer, and so I freaked out for a solid year. That’s kind of my signature — freaking out. There are a lot of risks associated with spine surgery, and I had a heightened awareness of all of them.”

A year after the surgery Richardson found herself in London on a study abroad. While there, Richardson met two other students who had spinal fusions. One of those students was Desiree Moss. Moss had her surgery at Primary Children’s hospital and was not looking forward to the long recovery ahead. When she first realized she was going to have the surgery, many hours of solitude followed.

“I didn’t really talk to anyone for a couple hours,” Moss said. “Then, I cried a lot.”

The tears were only the beginning. The pain of the surgery and the recovery lasted for months.

“The surgery was successful,” Moss said. “I don’t remember much. I know it hurt a lot and the recovery took forever. I couldn’t get in and out of bed by myself. I had to relearn how to walk.”

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Spinal fusion surgeries require patients to not bend, twist, run, jump, lift or really do anything physical for at least six months to allow the rods and screws the necessary time to properly fuse to the spine.

Joelle Liberman is another  student at BYU with a titanium back. Since she was five, Liberman had preventative back bracing and physical therapy. She knew her whole life that surgery was going to happen, and by 12, her surgery was set. She said she was more relieved than anything — relieved to not wear a back brace anymore and for physical therapy to finally be put to an end.

“Spiritually, my surgery and the whole bracing treatment was very eye-opening,” Liberman said. “I learned to really trust the Lord that things will work out. I felt so lucky to live in a time and place where I could find treatment for what could have been a crippling abnormality.”

Students with abnormalities and trials can be found all over campus. Those with spinal fusions said they understand the pain and they encourage everyone to reach out, even if it’s just a little.

“Since my surgery, I have discovered so many people who suffer silently with all kinds of conditions,” Richardson said. “Not just physical pains, but emotional pains as well. If you are in pain — reach out to the people around you. Let them help you. And if you don’t fall into that category currently, really get to know people. Move beyond introductions and routine conversation and find out how you can help. Because you can help. A lot.”

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