Ahead of the curve: Teen goes from back surgery to back flips
Spine surgery restores function for scoliosis patient
When Dr. Nigel Price received an e-mail from his former patient, Soleil Hernandez, he opened it immediately.
“I had to see what Soleil has been up to,” said Price, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon and Chief of the Section of Spine Surgery at Children's Mercy. Her message began with, “I don’t know if you remember me …,” then went on to describe the changes in her life since Dr. Price performed surgery to correct a moderate curve in her spine four years earlier.
Attached were videos of Soleil performing backflips and tumbling, something Dr. Price wasn’t sure the competitive cheerleader would be able to do after surgery.
The message brought a smile to his face, and the videos made his jaw drop—just a little bit. “As a pediatric spine surgeon, this is what we do at Children’s Mercy,” Dr. Price said. “We restore function for patients like Soleil.”
Positive attitude, progressive scoliosis
Soleil was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis and a 15-degree curve while living in Texas when she was only 5 years old. Her doctors prescribed she wear a Boston brace until she reached puberty, or about age 14.
They also suggested Soleil might benefit from tumbling and swimming, two activities she naturally enjoyed. “My doctors said tumbling would be good for my spine, stretching it out, and swimming would help me stay active,” she said.
Soleil followed her doctors’ orders, wearing the brace most of the day, but taking it off when cheering competitively. “I never let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she said. In fact, while living in Texas, Soleil was part of an elite cheer team that won 30 national titles.
About the same time Soleil reached adolescence, her family moved to Olathe, Kansas, and she stopped wearing the brace. Soon her curve became even more pronounced, reaching nearly 60 degrees by the time she was referred to Dr. Price.
“I was already on the path to surgery when I went to see Dr. Price,” Soleil said. “I was uncomfortable in my cheerleading uniform and I had a very noticeable hump.”
“When I first met her, Soleil’s positive attitude was exceptional, in spite of the progressive nature of her scoliosis,” Dr. Price said. Because her curve would likely advance even more, she was a strong candidate for surgery.
Soleil agreed the time was right to straighten her curve, a surgery Dr. Price performed in May 2012 when she was 16 years old and a sophomore at Olathe South High School.
“Soleil taught us that we could start mobilizing patients right after surgery. All patients are now up and receive physical therapy the day after surgery. Their lengths of stay aren’t as long—they aren’t as fragile as we once thought they were.”
During an extensive eight-hour operation performed at Children’s Mercy, Dr. Price inserted two carbon-fiber cobalt chromium rods and 23 titanium screws and hooks in Soleil’s back to straighten her curve. After a six-day hospital stay, she returned home to recover.
“The first few weeks were rough for me,” Soleil admitted, “mostly because my mobility was limited.” As Soleil got back on her feet, her biggest concern was how active she could be.
Seeing is believing
Dr. Price, who has performed more than 1,000 spine deformity surgeries in his career, said he wasn’t sure Soleil would be able to return to the same level of athleticism as before surgery, but she proved him wrong.
“I started with swimming, then progressed to cheering after several months,” she said. “Every time Dr. Price told me he didn’t know if I would be able to do something, I took it as a challenge. Then I would send him another video of me doing it.”
Following surgery, she gained two inches in height, and even more confidence in her abilities. “Everything worked well,” Soleil said. “I had a very minimal curve, no hump and my hips were aligned.”
Soleil took her junior year off from cheering to be certain she recovered fully. But she came back strong her senior year, serving as captain of the school’s cheerleading squad and choreographing a routine that received all “1” ratings in district competition.
“Soleil taught us that we could start mobilizing patients right after surgery,” Dr. Price said. “All patients are now up and receive physical therapy the day after surgery. Their lengths of stay aren’t as long—they aren’t as fragile as we once thought they were.”
Today, Soleil has traded in her cheerleading uniform for an active college life at Texas A&M College of Engineering where she’s a junior majoring in radiological health engineering.
Soleil is involved at her school as an ambassador for the College of Engineering, and is working at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas in the radiation physics department.
“I love that Soleil is pursuing a career in a health-related field,” Dr. Price said. “Cutting-edge imaging is going to be a growth area and it’s exciting she can be a part of it.”
And as far as her back goes, Soleil admitted she’s not as flexible as she once was, but she still does the occasional backflip and works out daily. “My surgery has given me an overall boost of self-confidence,” she said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin now, and that’s something I couldn’t say when I had a hump on my back.
“I’m so appreciative of everything Children’s Mercy and Dr. Price have done for me,” Soleil said. “I like to think I am one of their success stories.”
Learn more about Spine Surgery at Children's Mercy.