Teen With Scoliosis Bounces Back After Surgery

Sara Lewandowski has always loved performing. As a teenager, her passion is musical theatre, but Sara’s been on stage since she was just a little girl.

“I started dancing at four and it was primarily ballet, and as I got older I started doing all different types,” said Sara.

“They all start with ballet at Toledo Ballet,” explained her mother, Patti Lewandowski. “Stand up straight, hold your stomach in—it’s a very disciplined art form. And that’s how she grew up. It was around 7th grade that her dance teacher noticed her back was a little uneven.”

Sara was also feeling some achiness. She went to see ProMedica pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Aaron Buerk, MD, who diagnosed her with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.

“In this day and age, the treatment of scoliosis is much the same as it has been for 50 years,” explained Dr. Buerk. “If a curve gets over 25 degrees, it requires a brace to guide its growth. If it’s 50 degrees, it requires surgery to correct it.”

Sara slept in a body brace for nearly two years. Although a brace corrects the issue in 80% of cases, Sara’s curve got worse, and more painful. When it progressed to 50 degrees, Dr. Beurk recommended surgery.

“We asked him, ‘If I were your daughter, what would you do?’ and he definitely recommend this as the best choice,” said Sara.

“The reason we operate when a curve reaches 50 is because it tips. It gets to the point that the weight of the head and shoulders on that crooked spine—it will keep progressing despite maturity,” explained Dr. Beurk.

Because his patients are so young, Dr. Buerk often works in tandem with his partner, Adrian Lewis, MD.

“It always seems to work better with two surgeons,” said Dr. Buerk. “It is a fairly extensive surgery. One doctor will do one side; the other will do the other side. We can work simultaneously. This decreases the blood loss and makes the surgery go much more efficiently.”

Drs. Buerk and Lewis work on Sara’s spine together for a more efficient surgery

The surgeons straightened Sara’s spine and set it with rods and pins to ensure it stayed straight while it healed. An innovative piece of equipment called an O-arm was brought in to give the doctors a 3-D view of the spine sections they couldn’t see.

“I would say this is really the state of the art. For years we did it by feel, by how it looked,” said Dr. Buerk. “So now all the implants are placed with help from computer-assisted navigation, and once they’re in place, they are always in the right spot. So that has made the surgery much safer.”

Sara was also hooked up to a neurological monitor to make sure her motor skills stayed intact while the doctors were working. As they repaired her spine, they got real-time feedback on how her nerves were reacting to the procedure and could adjust if necessary. Within hours of surgery, Sara was able to walk and sit up in a chair. Just five days later, she was allowed to go home.

Sarah’s spine before (left) and after (right) surgery

“It is horrible the first week,” remembered Sara. “But it’s kind of amazing how you bounce back super super fast. I never imagined I’d ever be walking after that surgery and I was running four weeks out.”

Just six weeks after surgery, Sara was back on stage singing and dancing in a musical at her high school.

“My posture is better, everything feels better. I can sit in school and not have to readjust,” said Sara. “I’m not in constant pain anymore and I can run and do everything I used to do and do it easier.”

“Having scoliosis in this day and time is so much better than it was 20 years ago,” added Dr. Buerk. “Will it be better in 20 years? It probably will be, but this is the best we can do for these kiddos right now and it’s pretty good.”

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