For years I hid a serious case of scoliosis for the sake of normalcy. Surgery saved my life, and taught me how to live.
As a young girl bearing the trifecta of awkwardness—baby fat, curly hair with freckles, and a mouth full of metal braces—all I wanted was to fit in. So when I was faced with a serious spinal deformity at 13, I made the decision to protect what little normalcy I had, even if it meant secretly risking my health.
It started in the seventh grade during a routine scoliosis screening. You remember the drill: girls in one room, boys in another, each told to remove their shirt and bend forward while a rent-a-nurse examined the sea of adolescent backs for irregularities. In my case, this uncomfortable scenario included two encore examinations and a letter for my parents alerting them to the curve forming in my spine.
For me, the note conjured nauseating thoughts of doctor exams and X-rays, embarrassing plastic braces, and horrific nicknames like Quasimodo or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. No, I thought, this cannot happen to me. I’m a healthy and active teenager, a dedicated cheerleader, singer, dancer, and actress, the second oldest of four perfect sisters. I didn’t have scoliosis; all I had was a letter, which I swiftly tossed into the cafeteria trash can, banishing the proof of my diagnosis to a grave of half-eaten Salisbury steaks.
As the years went by, I worried that my curve was getting worse. But for the sake of being the star cheerleader, playing the lead in the high school musical, and participating in ski club with the rest of my friends, I continued to emanate normalcy. When anxiety about my condition worsened and led to the compulsive habit of pulling out clumps of my eyelashes and eyebrows, sometimes to the point of baldness, I realized that keeping my secret came at a heavy price.
I paid in tears when pain dragged me out of bed at all hours of the night to crack and stretch my aching spine, then cry myself back to sleep. And when my friends started wearing tight clothes and bikinis while I was forced to hide my worsening deformity, it cost me my self-esteem. Still, I feared that treating my scoliosis would keep me from doing the things that made me happy, and so I went on pretending.
During college, I endured constant back pain, the frustration of ill-fitting clothing, and the awkwardness of hiding my condition from the opposite sex. I felt betrayed by my body and developed a serious fear of intimacy. The curvature in my spine, along with my self-esteem issues, was taking over my life.
Finally, I turned to the Internet for the information and answers I didn’t have access to as an adolescent. Through research it became clear that spinal surgery, which included the very real possibility of ending up paralyzed or dead, was now my only option.
Still I went with plan B, moving to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of television hosting. Not surprisingly, after living one lonely year amid the glamour of Hollywood, I became more body conscious than ever. I was 24 years old, and though I was willing to live with the physical pain of scoliosis, I realized that I was no longer willing to be eternally ashamed of my body, never allowing anyone to love me because I didn’t love myself.
I had reached my breaking point.
The next few months were a blur of alcohol-induced tears mixed with moments of sober determination and courage. By what felt like divine intervention, I found myself in the office of an amazing orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Robert Pashman. There, illuminated in black and white, I laid eyes on an X-ray of my confused spine for the first time. It looked worse than I imagined, like an evil snake standing on its tail in a backwards “S” shape, ready to attack.
My spine was not only curved in three places, but also severely rotated, which had forced my ribcage to twist to the left. It seemed that my college nickname of “Twisted Sister,” once referring to my unruly, blonde, Dee Snider hairstyle, was now eerily dead-on. Dr. Pashman warned that if I didn’t have surgery soon, I would risk a punctured lung from the continued twist of my ribcage. Death now lurked on both sides of my decision, so I went with what offered more hope.
In July of 2007, I underwent an 8-and-a-half-hour, 13-level spinal fusion surgery. Dr. Pashman made an incision along my spine and inserted two titanium rods and about 25 screws into my vertebrae. My semi-flexible spine was then forced as straight as possible, and five rib bones were removed to eliminate my prominent rib hump. The extracted bones were turned into a paste and applied to my corrected vertebrae to fuse them into place.
After the surgery, I spent several difficult months in bed. I can no longer bend my spine normally, but I gained two inches in height and impeccable posture, not to mention the newfound ability to wake up and feel good physically and emotionally.
I am finally living my life out loud, no longer burdened by the massive weight of a secret. I am, at last, proud of the thing that makes me different. The 12-inch scar that runs the length of my spine is a symbol of the strength and courage I gained by facing my fears and a constant reminder that normal is whatever you make it.