For Gabriella, scoliosis surgery changed her life — in more ways than she expected.
After undergoing a posterior spinal fusion, Gabriella now knows what she wants to be when she grows up: a spine surgeon at Children’s National Hospital. “I found it so fascinating,” Gabriella said of the field of orthopaedics. She has since enrolled in her high school’s Biomedical Magnet program. Gabi has also started volunteering as a patient advocate at the hospital, sharing her experience with others who are preparing for spinal surgery.
“She's been positively impacted by her diagnosis and her surgery, and it's really spurred her interest in medicine and orthopaedics,” said her surgeon, Matthew Oetgen, M.D., M.B.A., the division chief for orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine at Children’s National Hospital.
It was during her annual 12-year checkup that Gabriella’s pediatrician first noticed a deformity in her spine. Concerned, her doctor recommended she make an appointment with Dr. Oetgen. X-rays indicated that she had a double S curvature in her spine. Because Gabriella was still young at the time of her diagnosis, it was likely the curve would get bigger as she continued to grow. Dr. Oetgen recommended surgery rather than a less invasive treatment like a brace to make sure the curve didn’t get worse. The news came as a surprise to Gabriella and her family, especially since she wasn’t experiencing any pain at the time. “You're telling them, on their first visit, that they need a big spine surgery. People react differently to this news. This is a lot of information to process and can be very stressful for the family. It’s not an easy decision to make, “Dr. Oetgen said.
Because of their concerns, Gabriella’s family decided to take some time to consider whether to move forward with the surgery, which would also require three days in the hospital. Unfortunately, a follow-up appointment several months later indicated that the curve had greatly increased. “I would have done anything and tried anything to avoid surgery, but because the curvature was so severe, we could not avoid that,” said Gabriella’s mother, Petrice. “She was not able to stand up straight when we went back for the follow up visit.”
Moving Forward with Scoliosis Surgery
Despite some scheduling delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gabriella underwent a posterior spinal fusion that summer. The procedure involved exposing the back of her spine, removing damaged vertebral bone and replacing it with implants. Screws and rods were used to stabilize the spine. “The implants are there to hold the spine straight and correct it and allow the bone to grow around that area over time so it can't curve anymore,” Dr. Oetgen said. It generally takes pediatric patients around six months to fully recover from the surgery. However, children who undergo this procedure are usually back to doing most of their daily activities after just three months, he added. More than a year after her surgery, Gabriella maintains a 4.0 GPA and is now a cheerleader at her high school. She continues to volunteer at the hospital and plans to play softball in the spring.
Dr. Oetgen and his team at Children’s National perform approximately 150 spine surgeries per year. Their combined experience benefits pediatric patients in many ways. The team’s coordinated approach means they can deliver care more efficiently, resulting in shorter hospital stays and allows children to come home as soon as it is medically safe. The model of care at the Spinal Fusion Surgical Home implements strict infection control procedures that have been shown to greatly decrease the chance of infection after surgery. Additionally, pediatric anesthesiologists use the least amount of opioid pain medications possible, which can be hard on the liver and cause uncomfortable side effects. “It's a real team effort and the team feels like they're invested in the patient, which I think leads to optimal outcomes, treatment and care,” Dr. Oetgen said.
This focused, individualized care resulted in a positive outcome for Gabriella in more ways than just improving her health—it has clearly inspired her plans for the future. Dr. Oetgen has no doubt Gabriella will achieve her goal of becoming a spine surgeon. “She's a smart girl and it’s wonderful to see her so inspired,” he said.
“We are eternally grateful for Dr. Oetgen. He has changed our lives forever. Gabi can now do things that she only dreamed of before,” says her mother, Petrice.
“I have nothing but respect for Dr. Oetgen. He helped me make my career path,” said Gabriella. “I really appreciated that he spoke to me like I was a person and not just a patient…I felt so much better because he was taking care of me.”