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HEALTH Surgery and straight to graduation

June 15, 2018 GMT

Bethel High School senior Sophie Bjornson may have thought she stopped growing taller a year ago, but this past December she gained 2 inches in three and a half hours.

That day, Bjornson underwent a scoliosis revision surgery at Danbury Hospital’s Spine Center to correct what had become a 48-degree curve in her spine.

Her surgeons, Dr. David Kramer and Dr. David Bomback, used 20 screws, two rods and fusion techniques on 10 vertebrae to straighten the slowly growing “S” curve.

“I went from being five-foot six with a curvy spine, uneven shoulders and hips and a huge rib hump, to being almost perfectly (straight),” Bjornson said, noting that she now stands 5 feet 8 inches tall.

And though the surgery was not done strictly for the aesthetic difference it created, Bjornson and her surgeons said, it was an added bonus to the risky procedure.

As with many cases of scoliosis, Bjornson said the changes to her appearance caused by the curve did take a toll on her self esteem. Though she didn’t get bullied about her condition, she said, she would notice it when dress shopping, going to the beach, or other times her back might be exposed.

“For me it was personally knowing the hump was there and that I was uneven,” she said. “The aesthetic difference was huge — it made me realize how much this did change me.”

Bjornson was in a small percentage of adolescents with idiopathic scoliosis — curving of the spine caused for unknown reasons — whose curve did not stop progressing despite the doctors best efforts after her early diagnosis in middle school.

She hopes sharing her story, especially during National Scoliosis Awareness Month, will help others with the condition know they aren’t alone and show the importance of scoliosis screenings that are performed in schools.

It was one of those routine screenings in middle school that led her school nurse to contact Kramer and Bomback, who diagnosed her with what was then a 34-degree curve.

The doctors had Bjornson wear a back brace, which typically will halt the curve from progressing, but by her freshman year it had reached 38 degrees, and then 48 degrees by last November.

“In that magnitude, in all likelihood it will continue to progress and progress even after she stopped growing,” Bomback said.

So, Bjornson, her family, and her doctors were left with two options — to wait and monitor the curve until surgery was absolutely necessary, or fix the curve right away.

The decision was somewhat difficult considering that, aside from the unevenness it caused in her body, the curve was not yet causing Bjornson any severe pain or limiting her mobility. She was able to participate on the volleyball and swim and dive team and worked as a cashier with almost no noticeable problems.

“There’s never a good time for this kind of surgery,” Kramer said “It’s a scary decision because you’re taking a very healthy, physically fit person without much pain...and saying, ’Okay, let’s do one of the biggest operations we know, and one of the most painful.”

But it was ultimately the fact that Bjornson was young and healthy that led her and the doctors to agree it would be the best time to do the surgery.

Recovery time for younger patients is significantly easier, the doctors said, and fixing the spine at 48 degrees rather than a more drastic curve would allow a more appealing “cosmetic correction.”

Bjornson only spent a few days after the surgery in physical therapy, unlike older patients who may need up to three hours a day for weeks afterward.

She also said it was the right time to have the surgery because it would allow her to participate in all senior year activities and avoid taking time off from college in the future.

“I wanted to do it sooner rather than later,” Bjornson said. “I knew most of all I wanted to be straight when I was walking at graduation.”

The 18-year-old will get her wish on Tuesday, when she graduates from Bethel High School.

She will continue to check in with Bomback and Kramer for another six months to ensure there are no complications.

The doctors said they perform about 40 surgeries each year on patients that suffer from scoliosis, some for corrections like Bjornson’s case and others to fix complications in patients who may have had surgeries done elsewhere years ago.

The two surgeons own a private practice called Connecticut Neck and Back Specialists. The surgeon’s private practice and Danbury Hospital’s Spine Center are one of three places in Connecticut that are able to do both these adult and pediatric scoliosis surgeries.

Bomback said this is mostly because it requires further specialization than just becoming a spine surgeon.

“There are a plethora of spinal surgeons in the state of Connecticut, but the number of spine surgeons that have been trained to do what we call spinal deformity surgery is a much smaller pool, and then in that pool, those that feel comfortable working in pediatrics is even smaller,” he said.

The hospital and the practice’s history of performing the procedures has made it so that the entire staff, even before and after the operation, have become somewhat of specialists in dealing with cases of scoliosis.

Bjornson said it was the staff that helped during her surgery that, in part, made her decide to study nursing when she heads to Western Connecticut State University next year.

“After my surgery, I had the best experience with all the nurses,” she said. “They were so helpful and they stuck by me. Whenever I called them they would always be there.”

aquinn@newstimes.com