Ahead of the curve

Kendall Huizenga, 15, of Michigan had surgery to fuse her back and is now dancing again.

DETROIT – Kendall Huizenga’s spinal column curved so severely from scoliosis that it looked like a snake trying to crawl up a hill.

For three years, Kendall wore a plastic brace almost 20 hours a day, hoping it would stop the curvature from getting worse and trying to prevent surgery. The only time she was allowed to remove the brace was to dance.

“That was one of my favorite parts about dance,” said Kendall, 15, who lives in Waterford, Mich. Dance was her refuge, her passion.

But the curvature in her spine continued to worsen. Finally, when Kendall was 13, a doctor said that she needed surgery because her spine had begun to compress her lungs.

“If the scoliosis is left untreated for many years, the curve will continue to progress,” said Dr. Ira Zaltz, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. “Kendall’s type of curve, in particular, ends up causing cardiac and pulmonary problems because of the mechanics of how the chest works. Therefore, everything inside does not work properly.”

But would she still be able to dance after the surgery? Kendall had danced since she was 4, training 17 hours a week.

Sue Wilson, Kendall’s mom, was frustrated. She found outdated websites on scoliosis surgery, but few offered a long-term prognosis for athletes or dancers. “There was an informational void,” she said. She feared the worst: There was a chance Kendall might never dance again after surgery; and if she did dance, she would never be the same.

Wilson enrolled her daughter in voice lessons, so she would have another artistic avenue if she couldn’t dance.

Of every 1,000 children, 3 to 5 develop spinal curves that are considered large enough to need treatment, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Kendall was told that she required spinal fusion surgery. Two metal rods would be put in her back to hold her spine straight, keeping it in place as the spinal column fused into a single, inflexible bone.

Years ago, children who had the operation would be kept in a cast for a year. But patients recover faster now because of advancements in surgical technique and instruments, and because of the use of cadaver bones to spur the fusion.

“We clearly know who to operate on and when to operate,” Zaltz said. “If Kendall had surgery 25 years ago, she would have had a longer fusion. More vertebrae would have been fused because that’s what we did. She would have had a stiffer back and might not have had the same results.”

Zaltz, who has been in practice 17 years, has performed more than 1,000 spinal fusion surgeries. Spinal fusion surgeries are “quite successful,” according to Dr. Muwaffak M. Abdulhak, a neurosurgeon at Henry Ford Health System.

Abdulhak said the key to the surgery is the fused bone because the rods and other hardware eventually “fatigue and fail and break.”

If the rods break, they have to be taken out, which requires another surgery.

Kelly Lynn Vanderhave, a clinical associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Michigan Health System, said spinal fusion surgery “helps kids stand better. It helps kids go back and do what they did previously.”

Kendall underwent a seven-hour spinal fusion operation in December 2009. During the seven-hour surgery, Zaltz fused Kendall’s spinal column from her second thoracic vertebrae to her first lumbar vertebrae, leaving a 22-inch scar.

Kendall, in intensive care for days, lost 25 pounds.

“The kid was in so much pain,” said Wilson, her mother. “Thank goodness she doesn’t remember.”

Zaltz called Kendall’s recovery “remarkable,” giving credit to the work ethic she learned from dance. “She is gung-ho and enthusiastic and dedicated to her activity. If every patient were like her, it would be great.”

Kendall is convinced being a dancer helped her recover. “I had the support of all my amazing teachers and students, and friends. Dance prepared me for my surgery. It gives me a strong body.”

Two months after surgery, Kendall restarted dance training. Four months after surgery, Kendall returned to competition. A video of her first dance with rods in her back was posted on Youtube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOLWRif5STs), her mother said, to show everybody “what was possible” instead of hearing about “what was no longer possible.”

Fifteen months after surgery, Kendall competed in a Dance Masters competition and won Miss Teen Dance of Michigan.