Scoliosis Treatment for Young Teen at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree

Spine Surgery Takes the ‘Whoa’ out of Teen’s ‘Giddy-up’

Jessica Spenceley on Horse

Jessica Spenceley wants to run — and not just on her own two feet. Although the 14-year-old Elizabeth resident yearns to get back to the school track, she really can’t wait to push her Palomino up to a full gallop again, a pleasure a scoliosis diagnosis took from the high school freshman last year. But now that she’s had spine surgery at Sky Ridge Medical Center, Jessica will be back to both types of running — and anything else she wants to do — soon.

Jessica learned she had scoliosis, or abnormal curvature of the spine, after a required sports physical for track. “They noticed that one side of my back was higher than the other,” says Jessica, a hurdler. Scoliosis strikes about three out of every 100 people in the United States, with 85 percent of cases, including Jessica’s, of unknown cause (idiopathic). Many cases are diagnosed in the pre-puberty, growth-spurt stage.

At first, Jessica and her family weren’t that concerned. Most scoliosis cases require no surgery, some simply never progressing to a problem stage, and others being stabilized with a brace until a child stops growing. But by the time she saw Sky Ridge orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Barker, Jessica’s curve was already near 40 degrees, the point where surgery is recommended. Dr. Barker tried a brace with a watchful eye, something that Jessica didn’t like because it put a crimp in her athletic and horse-riding style, but they all hoped it would ward off surgery.

But Jessica’s disease proved too aggressive, jumping from a 39-degree curve to 50 degrees. “It was at a checkup about two days before Christmas,” mom Debbie Spenceley says. “Dr. Barker said: It’s progressed so quickly, she needs surgery right away,” she recalls, her eyes welling with tears from the memory. “It wasn’t a very good Christmas.”

When Dr. Barker gave her the news, Jessica remembers: “I had a moment of panic, and then I started crying. But then I was OK with it,” she says, adding that Dr. Barker explained everything about surgery and was reassuring. “And,” Mom chimes in, “he said that you would never need a brace again, and that helped,” she says with a grin.

So Dr. Barker straightened Jessica’s spine with screws and rods during what felt much longer than the four-to five-hour surgery that it was, Mom says. “I waited right here,” she says from the Sky Ridge lounge area near the Cafe. “Hours and hours. But I was very confident in our doctor, which helped a lot,” she says, adding that she really liked how Dr. Barker always addressed Jessica, rather than her, when explaining things.

Jessica, who recalls little pain post-surgery, was walking the hospital hallways the next day and back to school part-time the next week, all thanks to advanced surgical techniques since he started practicing, Dr. Barker says. “We get a better correction and mobilize patients faster with fewer restrictions,” he says, adding that Sky Ridge performs more spine surgeries than any hospital in the state. At three months, Jessica was given the thumbs up to get back on her horse, Emma, but only at a walk or cantor within the confines of the arena on her family’s 10 acres.

The hardest part of the whole ordeal for Jessica, besides not being able to run free with Emma? “Going back to school after three months. I was still in summer-vacation mode.” And the best part? “I grew an inch,” she says, noting a common result of the posture-improving surgery. As for mom, she’s just happy her daughter now has a normal life ahead, something Dr. Barker confirms.

“She faces no restrictions,” he says, adding that, because scoliosis is four times more common in girls than boys, people often ask him about childbirth. “They should have no problems. Once they recover from surgery, everything goes back to normal. She should be good to go.”