Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

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Spine

Patient Profile: Judy and Allison

Judy and Allison Williams,Surgery Corrects Mother/Daughter Scoliosis

Both mother and daughter had to wear back braces, but after surgery to correct the curves in their backs, they both feel great and are free to do what they want.

Judy, 47, was 12 when her mother noticed the side-to-side curve in her back, a condition called scoliosis. An X-ray confirmed that her spine looked more like an “S” than a straight line. Some of the bones in her scoliotic spine also rotated slightly, making her hips appear uneven. For the seventh-grader, the diagnosis was the start of a tortuous two years. She had to wear a brace — “a lovely piece of work made of leather and steel. It was like wearing a corset,” Judy says.

Wearing the uncomfortable brace took a physical and emotional toll on Judy, but she soon discovered that she was not alone. Her younger sister also was diagnosed with scoliosis, which runs in families and mostly affects women, and she wore a brace too. Through support from family and friends they coped. Judy took the brace off to swim, play tennis and participate in physical education. The brace worked temporarily, but over time the curve worsened. At age 35, after giving birth to her third child, Judy knew she had to seek treatment. What’s more, she saw that her second daughter, Allison, showed signs of scoliosis.

“I tend to procrastinate, but when I recognized that Allison had it, that’s when I took her in to get checked,” Judy says.

A friend in New York pointed her in the right direction.

“She asked her doctor who was the best doctor to go to if he had anything wrong with his spine and he said I would go to Dr. David Bradford at UCSF,” Judy recalls.

Bradford, professor and chair of orthopedic surgery at UCSF, directs the UCSF Spine Center, which is comprised of a team of physicians, nurses and physical therapists who develop treatment tailored to each individual patient.

“Our goals are to improve the patient’s quality of life, decrease pain and enhance function so they can return to work or school,” says Bradford.

They aim to improve patient lives by increasing the understanding of the basic causes of spinal disorders and developing new treatments based on this research.

Judy and Allison first saw Bradford three years ago. He recommended immediate surgery for Judy, and in September 1999, she underwent a posterior spine fusion, a procedure that corrected the deformity and fused the deformed segments together. Bradford placed rods, screws and hooks to correct and corrected the curve.

“The goal of surgery is to stop the progression of the curve and to create balance so that the hips and shoulders are over each other,” says orthopedic nurse Kathleen Burke.

Judy was up and around after two months and back to her regular routine in six months feeling mild discomfort. A year after surgery, Judy felt completely healed.

Bradford initially recommended that 11-year-old Allison begin treatment with a corrective brace, which today is made of a perforated lightweight plastic material — a far cry from the heavy-duty type that Judy wore as a child. For Allison the worst part about wearing the brace was that her wardrobe was limited to loose-fitting T-shirts and overalls — a painful sacrifice for any clothes-conscious teenager. But because with time the brace did not correct and hold the curve, Bradford decided that surgery was necessary.

Unlike her mother, though, Allison was a candidate for the less invasive thorascopic anterior spine fusion. Assisted by surgeons George Picetti and Serena Hu, Bradford inserted a scope through a tiny incision to view the spine. He then inserted instruments through four entry points to correct the deformity and fuse the spine last June. Allison’s recovery time was about half of her mother’s.

“I had to lie down the whole time and it was hard to sit in the chair,” Allison recalls. “It was even hard to eat and drink. I lived on smoothies for two months.”

Eight weeks after surgery, Allison felt tired and was still experiencing some pain. But after six months, Bradford gave her the OK to go snowboarding. Today the eighth-grader is as active as she ever has been. Inspired by her father and impressed with Tiger Woods, she takes weekly golf lessons and plays nine holes at the nearby golf course. She’s looking forward to attending Los Gatos High School this fall.

“I look and feel much better,” Allison says. “I can tell my hips are even now and when I try on shorts they fit better.”

Meanwhile, Judy will be closely watching her youngest daughter, Sarah. She believes her eldest daughter, Erica, is free from the ailment, but at age 10 Sarah could still develop scoliosis.

“My advice to anyone with scoliosis is don’t procrastinate. Once a surgeon has determined that your curve is not going to get better, go for surgery,” Judy says.

Adds Allison, “Obviously, it wasn’t much fun, but I’d rather correct it now while I am young. I’d rather not have to go through life with a crooked back.”

Another benefit from the experience, Judy says, is that her family has a new perspective on health.

“They don’t tend to complain as much now when they have minor aches and pains.”

By Lisa Cisneros