Learning to Walk (Again) at Age 30

Dr. Cindy Haines Health Guide
  • People look at me funny when I say I had to learn how to walk again at age 30. "I would never have guessed that," they usually say. "You look so healthy."


    I take this as a supreme compliment. And I got to thinking lately that I have a few stories to tell about my personal fitness journey. Stories that just by looking at me, you wouldn't guess were there, but in knowing might be an inspiration (or a comfort) to you. This go-round, I want to tell you about my personal experience with scoliosis.


    There we were - all lined up like cattle next to the indoor swimming pool in my junior high school basement. We were all wearing our swimsuits and, feigning indifference, waited our turn with the nurse. As we watched and moved up in line, we saw most shuffled out, giggling, while others---the unlucky few---got pulled aside to receive a note for their parents and/or doctors.

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    My turn. Got the note. Hushed whispers and tears (the latter mostly mine) in the locker room.


    My initial exam revealed a fairly significant, but well-balanced, S-curve. Surgery was the best bet. My father, a conservative physician, chose to go the brace route while he did his research on the natural history of this condition.


    I eked out a full 20 minutes with that brace on. The sorry old thing was immediately retired into the closet to be thrown away years later. My father's research had led him to the decision that watchful waiting would be best for me, his little girl. Surgery seemed too extreme. And so it was.


    Years later, in my 20's, came the rounds of bridesmaid dress fittings whereupon I discovered I was shrinking. Once 5 foot 9 inches, I was now 5 foot 7 inches. I was also now a resident physician and soon-to-be-married. Time to get checked again.


    This visit, along with the subsequent follow-ups over 2 years, brought some very unsettling news: without surgery, cardiopulmonary compromise would begin within 10 years, ultimately leading to my quite premature death.


    So four days before my 30th birthday, my new husband and parents waited for me during my 6 hour surgery. Waited to hear if I was alive, waited to hear if I would be able to walk again or if I was permanently paralyzed from the surgery (a small risk, but due to my advanced age in the world of scoliosis surgery, a very real one).


    Scoliosis surgery may well be one of the most gruesome surgeries we physicians do. I must have had some inkling that this lay in my path, for in medical school I shunned any opportunity to participate in one. Too graphic of a visual when you can way too easily picture yourself as the one face down on that table.


    During my own surgery, the surgical team cut me open from my neck to my tailbone then separated the muscles from my spine. Forcefully my surgeon pulled my spine into the position he wanted, all the while with a machine monitoring my neurological impulses to ensure spinal function was still intact.


    When my spine was as straight as he could get it, they took bone from my hip and used it to create fusions along the length of my spine. Additional reinforcements were brought in the form of steel rods and screws. After this, they lay my severed muscles down to fuse together over the course of time and stitched me up.


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    I came through the surgery well...my doctor and his team reduced both my thoracic and lumbar curves impressively. More importantly, they also stopped the further progression of either curve with the rods and vertebral fusions (from my upper thoracic to my lower lumbar-essentially the whole thing).


    In the days that followed, I was like an awkward and lumbering newborn figuring out how my body worked. My physical therapy team re-taught me how to walk and perform other routine activities of daily living. These skills were momentarily lost due to the extremely traumatic nature of the surgery and complicated by my new body dynamics.


    On my 30th birthday, I walked back into my home 2 inches taller. And I kept walking. Until I started jogging, then running again. The best advice my team gave me: start the walking early and do it often.


    I strongly believe that my pre-surgery level of physical fitness helped me approach this as strong and ready as one can be for this kind of thing. Post-surgery, I began again.


    As long as I am alive, I will never stop.


    Yours in the journey,


Published On: December 05, 2007