Pain and Passion: A Teen Athlete Overcomes Scoliosis and Surgery
On your mark. Get set. Pow!
The white smoke from the official's starter gun rises in the air as the runners sprint around the track.
Two, four, six, eight...
The competitive cheerleaders chant before they begin their routine.
There’s dead silence. Then the sound erupts of gymnasts’ landing and sticking.
These moments make up three of Bryce Gray's favorite passions. People who know and love 16-year-old Bryce, describe her as a premier multi-sport athlete, a great leader, and a trusted friend. Yet, her favorite interest came to a screeching halt during a routine physical.
"I was tumbling and everything was normal. I had some pain, but I just thought it was typical back pain. I was doing backflips every day," Bryce recalled.
During her appointment, Bryce and her mother Shemita learned she had scoliosis, which was the source of her back pain.
"At the time, I time didn't know what scoliosis was," Bryce remembered. "After going to get fitted for a brace, I realized it was serious."
Bryce wore a back brace prescribed for 6-18 hours a day very compliantly, for 16 months. She was only allowed to remove her brace to shower and practice sports. She complained her clothes no longer fit and became self-conscious going to school, not sure how her peers would react.
"My friends made the best of it and started to call me Bryce-bot," Bryce said. "They would joke that I looked like a robot because of how hard the plastic was on my brace."
Bryce was released to actively compete just in time for summer. She and Shemita believed she'd made progress wearing the brace and were relieved when Bryce was able to stop bracing. By the end of summer, Shemita realized something wasn't right as Bryce complained of breathing problems.
"She told me she thought she had asthma," Shemita remembered. "She kept complaining about her breathing and I knew I needed to get her to the doctor.”
That doctor's appointment would be a turning point for Bryce. The family learned Bryce’s curve had grown over the summer, and her spinal curve had worsened. Her hips were also uneven.
"They told us her curve was progressive and had started to press against her lungs," Shemita explained.
"I have dreams of being a college athlete. When I got my diagnosis, I felt like everything was put on hold," Bryce expressed emphatically.
Dr. LaMont explained that Bryce's condition would continue to worsen, and surgery would be her only option for correction.
"If you took an X-ray of a normal back curve, it would measure between zero and 10 degrees and no one would question it," Dr. LaMont said. "Bryce's curve was near 60 degrees, and we knew she would need surgery."
After receiving the news, Shemita allowed Bryce to decide when she’d have the procedure. Out of fear, Bryce continued putting the surgery off.
"I knew what was best, but I didn't want to go through the pain and the healing process," Bryce said. "After a breakdown at the hospital, Dr. LaMont helped calm me down and I had surgery three days later."
The week before surgery, Bryce received the news she'd been selected as captain of her cheer team. She'd worked hard to achieve this honor.
"I felt shattered," Bryce remembered. "I was cheer captain. It was the middle of the summer, and I couldn't hang out with any of my friends. It was hard."
Dr. Lamont performed a posterior spinal fusion. The surgery took four hours, and Bryce spent four days at Cook Children’s for post-op care.
"I went in through her back and put rods and screws inside to straighten her spine out as much as possible," Dr. LaMont said. "We then fused the area so the spine no longer moves."
Once Bryce was home, she learned there wasn't much she could do for herself. She needed help showering, turning over in the middle of the night, and getting up the stairs. Because her surgery took place while COVID-19 precautions were in place, she was unable to have visitors and could only see family and friends through video chats. She also began a rigorous physical therapy regimen.
Bryce finished her last session of physical therapy in early January and was released to continue with her activities. Her orders require her to take it slow. Bryce admits it hasn't been as easy as she'd hoped.
"Getting back to normal is not going well," Bryce admits. "I knew I had metal rods in my back, but I didn't think much of it because I'm an athlete. I tried getting back into track and cheer at the same time, and quickly realized it was a bad idea."
Bryce decided to sit out of track and field and focus on getting stronger in cheer and tumbling. She has known how to do a back handspring since she was a toddler and finds it frustrating that she now needs help.
Shemita says watching her daughter go through this process has been grueling, but she's learned a lot from Bryce's determination to get better. Shemita has faith her daughter will continue to excel, no matter how long it takes.
"She's very resilient," Shemita said. "She's strong-willed, and a hard worker. I have no doubts about her recovery. I want her to take it slow."
Dr. Lamont agrees Bryce should ease back into her activities, especially if she wants to heal and continue to live out her dreams.
"She will feel different as she gets back into tumbling and some of more of her flipping routines because the mobility of her spine is different,” Dr. Lamont explained. “I don't want her to stop being an athlete. Part of the reason we fixed her back is so she can continue living her life the way she desires. She has to be patient.”
As Bryce continues to get stronger, she reflects on how she can help other young women with scoliosis.
"Whatever sport you're doing is not more important than your life or your future," Bryce said. "You have to stay strong and positive to get through the recovery process, and you'll be able to get back to doing what you love.”
Bryce has two more years of high school and still wants to go to college on an athletic scholarship. Instead of seeing her surgery as something that put her dreams on hold, she's shifted her mindset and now believes it was a temporary obstacle for her to come back as an even stronger champion.
About Cook Children's Scoliosis and Spine Care
Cook Children's orthopedic surgeons are very experienced in spine care with more than 30 combined years specializing in pediatric orthopedics. The group sees more than 1,300 patients with spine-related diagnoses a year, treating a wide variety of conditions, including scoliosis.
Cerebral palsy, associated with spine and extremity issues