Strong. Determined. Triumphant. These words describe Nancy Vepraskas, an Atlanta business owner, wife, mother and grandmother. Nancy grew up believing there was nothing she could do to treat her debilitating scoliosis, so she found ways to live with the disorder as it progressed through the years. She simply became accustomed to the pain and always overcame the physical obstacles that threatened to hold her back. For many years, Nancy persevered … until she just couldn’t anymore.
This is Nancy’s story about the scoliosis spine surgery that changed her life for the better—a treatment option she never thought possible.
Living with Scoliosis
Like any carefree teenager, Nancy enjoyed hanging out with her friends. Little did she know that one ordinary trip to her girlfriend’s house would set the stage for a 55-year uphill battle with scoliosis.
“My friend’s mom noticed I was standing funny,” remembered Nancy. “She put a book under my foot and said, ‘Now you’re straight. You need to talk to your parents.’ ”
Nancy was soon diagnosed with congenital scoliosis. As a solution, she was given an orthopedic shoe to help correct her posture and provide more support.
“I wore that shoe for about 15 minutes,” said Nancy jokingly. “Then I got on with my life.”
Over the years, Nancy periodically saw general practitioners, orthopedic doctors and chiropractors. She experienced pain for most of her adult life but learned how to adapt and improvise as her spine gradually wore away. In her thirties, Nancy was told very candidly that at some point she wouldn’t be able to walk.
Nancy’s condition continued to deteriorate, and in her early sixties, Nancy’s legs began to numb out often. This caused her to fall and break her collarbone. Still, Nancy’s health care providers didn’t mention scoliosis spine surgery.
Making the Decision to Have Scoliosis Spine Surgery
Fast forward another five years, and Nancy found herself at a crossroads. She could no longer hide the rib hump on her back. Her breathing became labored during exercise. And her balance was compromised so severely that it was impossible to walk short distances without assistance (exactly as she’d been warned three decades earlier).
“I love hospitality and entertaining and that became absolutely grueling,” shared Nancy. “It was sad to watch my family gather around me to keep my reputation intact. My life kept getting smaller and, honestly, I hated it.”
Finally, Nancy went to see Dr. Dheera Ananthakrishnan, a spine surgeon with Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, after her new general practitioner, orthopedic doctor and physical therapist all recommended the scoliosis specialist.
“Nancy had a pretty complex case,” said Dr. Ananthakrishnan. “She had a significant curve, almost an 80% scoliosis and a compensatory curve above it. I remember thinking, ‘how is this woman walking?’ I felt terrible that she had been suffering for so long.”
Nancy was completely fused at the bottom of the scoliosis and everything below that was broken down. Stenosis caused a lot of pressure on the nerves at the base of her spine, and her lungs were slowly being crushed.
Dr. Ananthakrishnan presented Nancy with the option of reconstructive spine surgery. It would help correct Nancy’s curve, which in turn would improve her function and decrease her pain. However, the surgeon cautioned Nancy the invasive procedure wasn’t for the faint of heart; Nancy would need a series of surgeries followed by a long, strenuous recovery.
“Dr. A explained that if I were functioning at a level that worked for me, I should wait to have the surgery,” Nancy said. “I was scared and often advised I was too old, but I felt like I had no choice. I wanted my life back. I wanted to walk again.”
The Truth about Surgery and Recovery
The scoliosis spine surgery was serious business. An entire multi-disciplinary team at Emory Spine Center evaluated Nancy to make sure she was fit for the operation. They ran a battery of tests, including blood tests, X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans. The clinicians made decisions together and guided Nancy through pre-operative therapy to prepare her physically, mentally and environmentally for the hard work to come.
Then, Nancy had two surgeries that were tailored to her unique circumstances. And while there was a well-laid-out surgical plan, Dr. Ananthakrishnan had to make some big decisions during the operations to ensure the best possible outcome.
Recovery was a lot of work—a long process that took more than a year. Nancy spent the first few days in the intensive care unit managing her pain and the next six months at home learning patience. Nancy’s body demanded an inordinate amount of rest as the plates, screws and rods fused into the spine and her brain rewired themselves. She had to take it easy, listen to her body and accept assistance from family and friends to complete activities of daily living.
“Scoliosis patients are used to pushing through pain and controlling the situation,” commented Dr. Ananthakrishnan. “But recovery has a mind of its own. It’s a personal development journey to go through a major surgery like this and every patient’s journey is different.”
When Nancy was finally ready for physical therapy, her body had to re-learn what a lifetime of adaptation and improvisation to scoliosis had forgotten. It was exhausting, but strict compliance to her wellness program was vital to maximize the benefits of surgery.
It’s been more than a year and a half since Nancy went through the scoliosis spine surgery that reduced her primary curve by almost 20 percent. She still sees a physical therapist and personal trainer every week to finesse minor residual issues; however, the hard work Nancy did during recovery helped her regain the ability to walk unaccompanied. Her breathing and digestion improved, and, as an added bonus, Nancy dropped two shirt sizes because the hump on her back went away. Nancy admits it was difficult but doesn’t have any regrets.
“This surgery was a miracle,” Nancy exclaimed. “And not just a physical miracle. It changes your brain capacity. It changes your mood. It changes everything for the better.”
Nancy lived a lifetime believing nothing could be done for her scoliosis. She dealt with a lot of pain from day to day and her quality of life suffered as she gradually lost mobility. Now, Nancy has more energy than ever and is looking forward to baking with her grandchildren, throwing dinner parties for friends and traveling the world (post-COVID).
“There are treatment options,” she said. “And if surgery is an option for you, be willing to take the risk. I did. I’m 70 years old, and I got my life back. It’s amazing!”
About Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center
Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center offers a full range of services to diagnose, treat and repair bones, joints and connective tissue. From non-surgical treatments to surgical options, including scoliosis spine surgery, our team puts your health and well-being first. Part of our commitment to patients is making sure you receive the care you need when you need it. Schedule your appointment today.