Climbing a Steep Medical Mountain
– by Mark L. Gardner, NYSID Alum –
The Rye Record

Mark Gardner wrote the following article about his daughter’s bout with severe scoliosis of the spine. The article appeared in his local newspaper, The Rye Record. Mark hopes the piece will help other families who are dealing with scoliosis and related ailments.

Nina Gardner

As John Lennon once poignantly noted, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

My family discovered this truism when, about five months ago, our daughter Nina was diagnosed with severe scoliosis of the spine. Nina, 13, is in seventh grade in Rye Middle School.

Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. But scoliosis is not an exaggeration of the spine’s ordinary, slight curves. Rather, it is a lateral, sideways curve. When viewed from the rear on an X-ray, the spinal column appears not as a straight line, as it normally should, but as a curved line. Many kids have scoliosis, but it is usually not noticeable and doesn’t require any treatment.

Normal scoliosis, if there is such a thing, is a single curve of the spine. In Nina’s case, she has two curves. When her spine is viewed from the rear on an x-ray slide, Nina’s spine resembles a backwards “S”.

Those two curves that life threw at Nina would ultimately cause her to climb up quite a mountain of hardship, and it wasn’t easy for her. But then, as most parents know, just being a 13-year-old girl isn’t easy, either.

Nina’s journey began October 9 of last year. My wife and I sat in a windowless medical office in White Plains, nervously watching an orthopedic surgeon measure Nina’s spine on an X-ray slide with a protractor. Like every other parent who sleepwalks through life, taking his kid’s health for granted, we were slapped awake by the doctor who was telling us that Nina would need an operation — spinal surgery.

The following weeks were a blur of trips to New York City for meetings with other specialists, and extensive research done online. The research opened up a scary world of back braces and nearly indecipherable medical terminology.

The research also led to the traditional surgical operation for scoliosis that would entail screwing metal rods into Nina’s spine and “harvesting” bone from a rib, or hip, to implant between Nina’s vertebrae. This became known as the “fusion operation”.

After much research and agonized discussion, my wife and I decided, (with Nina’s agreement, of course), that Nina would undergo a new, nearly experimental, procedure known as “vertebral stapling”. It consists of the stapling together of the vertebrae to form a sort of internal back brace.

The good news was that this procedure is much less invasive than the fusion operation. No bone needs to be harvested, the recuperation time is two weeks rather than three to five weeks, and there is no loss of mobility.

However, the bad news was that the procedure was only being performed at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia. And it consisted of a seven-hour operation, followed by a week in the hospital, and two weeks recovery at home.

Nina courageously began to mentally prepare herself for the operation. She never showed any fear or apprehension. Instead, she wondered loudly whether she might be able to replace her old cell phone with a new one after all the dust had settled.

On the day of her operation, we arrived at Shriners Hospital before 7 a.m. After about an hour of pre-op preparation, a nurse and the anesthesiologist came to wheel Nina into the operating room. It was like a scene from a movie, but not a movie in which anyone would ever want to play a role. My wife and I kissed Nina on the forehead, told her we loved her, and said we'd see her in a little while. The sense of fear (or was it pure terror) was overwhelming.

During the operation, in order to insert six staples into numerous vertebrae in the middle, thoracic section of Nina's spine, the surgeon deflated Nina's right lung. To insert the staples from the anterior, or front of her body, they also had to “move her internal organs around”. Then they inserted four more staples into the lumbar section of her spine.

At 3:30 p.m., the head surgeon came into the little waiting room and announced that Nina “had done well”. Nina and I spent an uneventful night in ICU, and she was discharged from the hospital four days later.

After we drove back to Rye, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. But then, just a day later, in a stroke of bad luck, the ordeal continued in full force when Nina contracted a stomach virus. After several bad nights, the virus thankfully ended its reign of misery, and Nina began to quickly recover from the operation.

Nina’s calendar now shows events at school, and just last week we went and bought that new cell phone.

Postscript: Shortly after this article appeared, Nina was again hospitalized with pneumonia in her right lung and, more importantly, a blood infection caused by bacteria known as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). MRSA is an extremely dangerous type of bacteria that is resistant to regular antibiotics.

How did this happen? No one seems to know, but it appears that the MRSA bacteria may have "colonized" in some part of Nina's body after the operation in Philadelphia. There are many theories, but somehow the MRSA entered Nina's bloodstream, possibly through one of the incisions. At the time, doctors were concerned that the infection would spread to her spine and infect the recently inserted staples, thus requiring another operation to remove and replace them.

As it turned out, Nina was treated with a series of powerful antibiotics during a two-week stay in the hospital. After she returned home she continued to receive massive doses of intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Thankfully, the infection did not migrate to her spine.

Nina no longer requires the IV, but still takes oral antibiotics. She has now regained a good deal of her strength and has returned to school on a part-time basis. We pray that this nightmare is now over.

For more information on MRSA, go to