During an appointment to get her sore feet checked at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Lauren Gassel, who was only 6-years old, also received a scoliosis screening, just in case.
The screening led to an X-ray. The X-ray led to the discovery of a 23-degree, S-shaped curve in Lauren’s spine.
Lauren’s diagnosis of scoliosis put both her and her family on a long road through treatment. It started with Chief of Orthopaedics Michael Schmitz, M.D. When the curve progressed to 29-degrees, he put Lauren in a modified Boston brace, developed at Children’s, after she completed kindergarten with the hope of stopping the curve’s progression while her spine continued to grow.
Lauren was diligent about wearing the brace 18 to 20 hours a day.
“It changes your entire life,” said Lorie Gassel, Lauren’s mother. “That is a time of a tremendous amount of growth. It was very difficult for Lauren.”
She came back to Children’s two or three times a year for adjustments and received a new brace about once a year. Lauren ultimately wore the brace consistently for six years, past her 12th birthday.
“She never got used to it. She adapted to it,” Lorie said. “It was completely restrictive. We had to buy her a whole new wardrobe that would work with the brace. She always felt like everyone could see it.”
After six years with the brace, Schmitz told the Gassel family that the curve was still progressing -- now at 53-degrees -- and further bracing would not be effective. He recommended spinal fusion surgery to correct deformity and prevent further curve progression.
“I remember the day I told her she needed surgery,” said Lorie, fighting back tears. “It was very emotional for both of us. I know what can happen. She was scared, of course.”
It would have been easy to view the struggles that came with six years of bracing as a waste, but the Gassel family didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t look at the time she spent in the brace as a failure,” Lorie said. “We were able to keep her from having surgery at a much younger age. But it was a long, drawn-out process.”
Lauren had her spinal fusion surgery Dec. 8, 2011. Before the surgery, a nervous Gassel family was comforted by a child life specialist from Children’s.
“We were very nervous, and she came in and distracted her,” Lorie said. “Before she knew it, she was getting the info she needed without even knowing it.”
In addition to a child life specialist, Lauren was cared for by a multispecialty team that included her orthopaedic surgeon, pediatric anesthesiologists, nurses, physical therapists and orthotists while at Children’s.
Lauren stayed home from school for six weeks following the surgery but has since returned to class. She is still limited in a few things–like playing sports–but has been steadily recovering.
Children’s performs hundreds of spinal fusions each year with advanced technology and minimally invasive procedures. In 2010, Children’s performed more spinal fusions than any pediatric facility in the country with more than 500.