Scoliosis is where the spine twists and curves to the side. It can affect people of any age, from babies to adults, but most often starts in young people aged 10 to 15. Our blog comes from young athlete Sarah who tells us how scoliosis has affected her.
Hello! I’m Sarah Calvert, a 16-year old middle distance runner from Linlithgow. I’ve been a keen runner from the age of nine and have always been very active. I run at a high level and hope that one day I can make it to a major championships.
Almost three years ago I was diagnosed with scoliosis and shortly after forced to undergo surgery to correct the curvature of my spine. I had three curves with the biggest measuring 51degrees. Despite this I hadn’t been affected and if it were not for my dad who noticed that one of my shoulders was far more predominant than the other, I probably wouldn’t have become aware of my deformed spine until it had become painful. At first my scoliosis was only apparent from the back so I could not see it, however closer to the surgery I could see myself on my front that my body was uneven and twisted. I am thankful that my dad noticed it when he did as who knows what would have happened if it was left much longer. When diagnosed with scoliosis I had never heard of it or of anyone else who had it so I was pretty shocked that day. I was expecting to go to the consultant and for him to tell my dad there was nothing wrong. Yet the complete opposite happened. We were informed that I had severe scoliosis and was going to need complicated surgery with scary potential risks on my spine which as you can imagine would be terrifying for anyone. And to add to that there was a recovery period in which you could do no exercise apart from walking for nine months.
For anyone that would be hard, but for a fourteen-year old keen runner who had always been very active, it killed me. At the time I thought that it was over and I wasn’t going to be able to run again or if I was, only slowly and definitely not to the standard I was at. All of my dreams became impossible. That was probably the worst part about it for me as running was my life. It brought me thrill, freedom, fun and a sense of achievement which I wouldn’t have had in my life without it. I cried a lot that day and so did my parents- we were ruined.
Between diagnosis and surgery was a very scary time for me, probably the most scared and worried I have ever felt in my life. I cried almost every night. However, I continued to train hard and pushed myself harder than ever before as I knew that it would soon be over. I tried my hardest to make the most of those six weeks between diagnosis and surgery, doing everything to my fullest potential. In fact, two days before my surgery I won the east district 1500m championships (despite the fact I had three curves in my spine). That was a very nice last run and one I will never forget.
The day of the operation itself was hard for me but only the few hours before the surgery whereas my family were worried sick for five hours while my spinal fusion was taking place. I can only imagine how hard this must have been and I felt bad for the worry I had brought upon them however scoliosis is not something that you can cause or prevent, it is simply something that the unlucky ones of us are gifted. There is no known cause, it is said that its inherited however no one really knows and I don’t know any members of my family who have it. Once the surgery was over the amazing surgeon, Mr Tsirikos, called my parents to let them know it was a success. None of the life changing risks had affected me. This must have been a big relief for my mum and dad, and for me as well when I woke up however it didn’t become apparent to me until the next morning once some of the strong drugs had worn off. Now that the surgery was over, Mr T had done his part, everything lay in my hands and a lot less could go wrong. I stayed in hospital for about a week post operation. I was in a lot of pain which in the beginning was being controlled by morphine. For the first few days I was bed bound and couldn’t even sit up as well as I feeling extremely sick and drowsy 24/7. After a couple of days, I was able to sit up on the side of my bed, then in the chair and finally I was able to take a few steps. Walking for the first time felt very weird, my back felt so different and weighed a ton. This was weird as a few days ago I was storming around a running track feeling strong and now I was learning to walk again. Achieving the walk to the end of the ward didn’t quite give me the same sense of achievement as winning a race but it was something.
Once I was out of hospital, I was still in quite a lot of pain and couldn’t do much activity at all. My mum had to dress me, I couldn’t have a bath for months and in the beginning I could only walk for a few minutes before feeling dizzy. This got slightly better day by day and after about three weeks I was in minimal pain. I was still off school as sitting down in a chair for a period of time was tricky so I didn’t go back to school until after the summer holidays. Now that the back pain was gone, the pain of not running starter to kick in as I was feeling like I could run.
The next eight months were the longest eight months of my life. I’d watch my sister go out to training and saw my friends race incredible races in fast times. I wished I was one of them and became angry as to why it was me who had been attacked by scoliosis as I felt I had done nothing to deserve this sadness. I saw pictures of them together, racing, on podiums and having fun. I was getting slightly depressed and I think a part of this was because I didn’t have running to release my stress. I had to get on top of it and realise that running wasn’t everything and I had to find other ways to make myself happy. So I started to try and get in a decent walk at a brisk pace every day. It was as close to running as I could get and it made me feel as if I was doing something to keep myself slightly fitter than I would have otherwise. When my friends went to the gym after school, I’d go with them and walk on the treadmill. When my sister went to running club, I’d go with her and watch or help coach. And I would try and go walking outside as often as I could. During this time, I became a very fast walker (my dad will agree with me on this one!) so I think I did actually gain some fitness however the benefit was definitely more mental than physical.
When the time finally came that I could start to exercise again, I was so happy. As soon as I got home from my appointment with the spinal consultant I went to the gym and this time I jogged on the treadmill. Slowly and not for long but it felt amazing. It felt completely different to how it used to when prior to the surgery however I still loved it. I think I imagined the comeback would be much smoother than it was. I knew it was going to be long and hard but not in the same way that it was. I expected to start jogging a little and to just slowly build up with no hiccups along the way, although in reality I had many injuries in different parts of my body. I think this was mainly down to the fact that I moved in different ways from before and the fact that I had to start wearing a back brace 20hrs a day so my body couldn’t recover properly. Yet this time even though I couldn’t run, I could still cross train to keep fitness (or gain it at this stage as I had very little). It was around nine months after I was told I could exercise again that I actually did my first xc race. It was hard and I was not quite as fast but I think I actually surprised myself and showed myself that I could still do it. I still had it in me, even with metal rods down either side of my spine and maybe I would be able to achieve my dreams after all.
My first track race was the national indoor champs which somehow I won. The look of surprise and happiness on my face says it all! Then the following week in the Scottish Schools indoor champs I ran a pb which was a real boost as this showed that I was running faster with the rods in my back than I had done without. A few more sore calves followed after this, however I became extremely good at dealing with this. I would work my butt off in the pool, in the gym and on the bike. And then when I could run I would throw my all into training sessions and runs as well. I think knowing what it’s like not to be able to do something makes you work even harder at it. Last summer I achieved my first Scotland vest which is something I have wanted for a very long time. I had tried and failed at achieving it many times before so to reach my goal was great. I am now still working hard in training, hoping for faster times and more wins this year. I have just recently stopped wearing my back brace so hopefully I am coming to the end of my scoliosis journey and can put it all behind me. I’m enjoying my running more than ever before and I am currently enduring the longest block of uninterrupted training since coming back (fingers crossed it keeps going!). I’m also pushing hard to get through my Highers at school in the hope that I can get the grades to study Dentistry at University.
I hope you have enjoyed hearing my story. It was a hard time and I wish I hadn’t had to go through what I did. I sometimes wonder where I would be if I hadn’t had to have the surgery. Would I be faster? We will never know but I’m happy now and one thing I know for sure is that I am never going to let scoliosis stop me.
Never give up and keep chasing your dreams,
** Since writing this blog Sarah won the Scottish Schools indoor 800m and 1500m - the double. What's even better is that her younger sister Isla also won the 800m and 1500m events in here age group too - the double double! You can read about it here.
If you are a young person who has been diagnosed with Scoliosis or know a young person who has been diagnosed and you wold like to ask Sarah questions about her experience please email us at: email@example.com and we can put you in touch with each other.
Exercise therapist Caroline talks about sports and eating disorders and how you can get help and support others who may be having challenges.
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