Thirteenth birthdays are usually a cause for celebration ... but in my case, this day changed the course of my life.
I’d just caught some momentum after three years of competitive golf. I won five tournaments in the summer of 2015 after competing for the first time at the 2014 U.S. Kids’ Golf World Championship.
I was starting to love playing golf, and I wanted to compete at higher levels.
A routine physical derailed my plans after an x-ray confirmed my pediatrician’s suspicions of scoliosis. I had a large 30-degree curve in my thoracic spine coupled with an 11 degree curve in my neck and an 18 degree curve in my lumbar spine. Curves of those magnitudes are usually more visible and can be caught early, but mine went largely undetected.
I required aggressive bracing treatments - after which, the only option for treatment is spinal fusion surgery, where metal rods, screws, hooks, and wires are used to mechanically straighten the spine. I knew that spinal fusion in all three regions of my spine would cause me to lose a large portion of my ability to rotate, and I likely would not be able to reach my full potential on the golf course.
I was determined to avoid surgery and get back to golf.
My competitive side saw treatment as a test: how much correction in my curve I could achieve. I wore the brace religiously for 22 hours per day, 7 days per week, for 18 full months and I adhered to a rigorous physical therapy routine. I stuffed mini ice packs in the brace cavities so I could bear the stifling Atlanta summer heat. I endured long bus rides to school, held completely upright, and had a few interesting run-ins with airport security. Sometimes, I wore the brace for almost a full 24 hours and only removed it to shower.
Typically, scoliosis patients receive no correction through bracing and can only hope to hold their curve at the initial degree.
I walked into my freshman year of high school with a 22-degree curve in my spine, a full 8 degrees better than when I started treatment. I achieved my first two goals: curve correction and successful evasion of a spinal fusion surgery. Getting back to golf was next.
Wearing a rigid back brace for an extended period of time deteriorates the muscles designed to hold the body upright. When I began to swing a golf club again, my back was extremely weak.
In my first event after treatment, I shot 104.
Physical therapy helped me regain strength and I practiced during the two hours I was allowed out of the brace. That summer, I played my first season of AJGA events, competing in what I affectionately called my “qualifier series” because I didn’t yet have the game - or stamina - to play in longer events.
I desperately wanted to start building experience while finishing up my last few months of bracing. After receiving the green light from my doctor in August 2017, I really began my journey to return to the level of play I had attained prior to my diagnosis.
Before I took on the challenge of avoiding spinal fusion and getting back to golf, I first had to find treatment to enable me to do so. At the time of my diagnosis, the typical treatment involved a brace developed in 1972, which offered no hope of correcting a curve.
My family and I researched other options. The National Scoliosis Center offered a new type of brace which utilized a 3D scanner, provided hope of individual correction and addressed all three dimensions of my spinal deformity: both the curvature in the xy plane and the rotation in my spine that caused my right shoulder blade to protrude.
The challenges? No doctor would prescribe the new treatment, which also was not yet FDA approved, and the National Scoliosis Center was over 1,000 miles away in Fairfax, Virginia. Eventually, we found Dr. Nicholas Fletcher in Atlanta. He prescribed the brace and I traveled to be fitted.
I recognized then, and now, that I was extremely fortunate to receive the best possible care.
I know many other kids have not been so lucky. A large pool of successful patient outcomes is required in order to establish this procedure as a standard of care for scoliosis patients. I felt a strong personal responsibility to every future child diagnosed with scoliosis to achieve as much correction as possible.
After my successful treatment, along with a few other kids, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta collected enough data to support the reliability of the brace, and brought the technology to its orthopedic center in Atlanta, a process they had begun investigating before my treatment.
Some insurance companies deem orthotics with a 3D CAD procedure to be investigational and not medically necessary. I began to fundraise through the AJGA’s Leadership Links program for the Outcomes Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to help Dr. Fletcher collect better data from patients with a variety of spinal deformities, including early onset and juvenile scoliosis.
Resources, including staff support and data analytics with statistical support, are expensive but essential to the outcomes center at Children's. By collecting more data, Dr. Fletcher and the other doctors can improve their knowledge of spinal deformities and increase positive outcomes for other patients.
I am so grateful to Dr. Fletcher and Kristen Howell at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Luke Stikeleather at the National Scoliosis Center for providing me with the best possible care. Their efforts have helped me live my life and get back to chasing my dreams on the golf course.
I am so thankful to the AJGA for giving me the opportunity to compete at the highest level of junior golf, and I am humbled and honored to be a 2020 Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award Recipient.