Coming Back From Scoliosis: Annie’s Story
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Choosing to have major spinal surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to correct her scoliosis at a time when her athletic career was at a peak wasn’t an easy decision for 15-year-old Annie. But the aspiring Paralympic athlete has never been one to let her medical issues slow her down – not the severe club foot she was born with in China, not the nerve damage she sustained from corrective serial casting and surgery, and certainly not her move to join her forever family in Boise, Idaho.
Annie’s mom, Sarah, still marvels at the memory of her 6½-year-old daughter announcing her intention of becoming an Olympic gold medalist. At the time Annie was well-accustomed to the ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) she would likely wear for life to stop her left foot from rolling beneath her while she walked.
But Annie was inspired after watching a double-leg amputee on TV during the summer games in London in 2012. She told her mom: “I’m going to do that.”
Within a few months, Annie’s journey in sports – both as an adaptive Paralympian and able-bodied athlete in triathlon, track and field, and swimming – began in earnest.
For years, she honed her skills – running harder, leaping higher and swimming faster – adapting as needed due to her physical differences.
Annie’s parents knew their youngest daughter had scoliosis – a curve in her spine – but it wasn’t a major concern until they received a call from Annie’s school nurse when Annie was in 6th grade. Her scoliosis was identified during a routine screening at school and the nurse recommended follow-up with her orthopaedic physician in Boise, Idaho.
After an examination, the orthopaedic doctor recommended Annie wear a back brace around-the-clock to attempt to stop the spine curvature from getting worse. Annie was heartbroken – wearing a back brace 24/7 would require giving up her athletic pursuits and dream. Eventually Annie was allowed to remove the brace for sports activities only, and she stuck to the regimen, wearing the brace with little complaint for almost three years. Unfortunately, her scoliosis continued to worsen. At 15, her doctor said she needed surgery.
When Annie’s doctors in Idaho recommended surgery, Sarah began her quest to find the best pediatric surgeon in the country to treat her daughter’s scoliosis. A Google search led her to John M. Flynn, MD, a nationally recognized leader in the field of pediatric orthopaedic surgery and Chief of the Division of Orthopaedics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – some 2,400 miles from Annie’s home.
The family reached out and connected with Maribeth Magarity, MSN, RN, a dedicated nurse navigator for CHOP’s Division of Orthopaedics, who helped them coordinate the logistics of getting Annie evaluated at CHOP. Before long, Annie had an appointment scheduled with Dr. Flynn at CHOP’s Main Hospital in Philadelphia. Within minute of meeting Dr. Flynn, mother and daughter knew they were in safe hands.
After an examination and reviewing imaging results, Dr. Flynn recommended a selective spinal fusion. By only fusing some of the bones, Dr. Flynn could straighten Annie’s spine, yet retain the flexibility she needed to continue being competitive as an athlete. Dr. Flynn assured Annie that she could resume training as soon as she wanted to after surgery. Surgery was performed Dec. 5, 2020.
“My recovery went really well and a lot faster than I thought it would,” Annie says. She spent two days in the hospital, then joined her mother at a nearby Ronald McDonald House for a few more days to ensure she didn’t have any setbacks before their plane ride home to Idaho.
“I was completely off the heavy pain medications after two weeks, and I would just go for walks every day when I felt my best,” recalls Annie. “I was back in the gym at six weeks and started working up to where I was prior to surgery.”
Now 17, Annie is back in peak form. In June 2022 – just 18 months after spine surgery – she competed at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championship in Miramar, Florida. Not only did she shatter the world record for T14 athletes in the long jump, she also set new U.S. records for the 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump – earning three National Championship titles.
“Despite the setback I faced, my goal of bringing home a gold medal has never changed,” Annie says.
Thanks to a combination of Annie’s fierce drive, encouragement from her family and coaches, and most recently CHOP’s renowned orthopaedic care, Annie continuing to chase her dream for gold – healthy, focused and stronger than ever before.
“I’m very thankful for the amazing team at CHOP who listened to this goal of mine, and have supported me through my biggest surgery, so that I can one day achieve this goal,” says Annie. “CHOP made me feels safe and reassured me that everything was going to be OK, and that this wasn’t going to be the end of my athletic career, it was just the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”