In honor of National Scoliosis Awareness Month, Alexandra “Love” Wahl shares her experience with scoliosis and her path to finding her ‘new’ self.
“Two rods, 16 screws, one new me”
Alexandra “Love” Wahl was an exceptional gymnast. A fierce competitor all of her life, Love grew up in the gym and in 2012 at age 13, she qualified for the Washington state championships.
But one day while practicing her routine on the high bars, a coach told her she needed to “stay straight.” Love was confused – she felt she was as straight as she could possibly be. The coach called Love off the bars and had her bend forward so she could look at her spine. The coach slowly turned and motioned for Love’s mother, Wanda, to come down from the stands. Love’s spine was severely curved, forming a prominent “S” shape.
“From that moment our lives changed,” recalls Wanda.
Wanda took Love to a hospital near their hometown of Spokane, WA, where a doctor told them Love needed a spinal fusion and would never be able to participate in contact sports, including gymnastics, again. Love ran out of the hospital in tears after the appointment and on the verge of a panic attack.
“I thought my life was over,” says Love. “I was completely blindsided.”
Seeking a second opinion
They sought a second opinion at Seattle Children’s Hospital and immediately felt a connection to their physician, Wally Krengel, MD, and his team. When Love first saw Dr. Krengel, an x-ray of her spine showed a 55 degree right thoracic curve and 47 degree left lumbar curve.
“When a patient like Love presents with a curve over 45 degrees and still has time to grow, we recommend surgery. Back braces haven’t proven to help when children are still developing physically,” explains Krengel, chief of spine surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Love pleaded with her doctor to allow her to finish her gymnastics season and attend state before undergoing the fusion. Krengel agreed, but only if she came in two months after their initial appointment to evaluate how much worse the curves of her spine were becoming.
The severity of Love’s curves increased in just a couple short months – her thoracic curve reaching 69 degrees and her lumbar curve 57 degrees – but she was able to successfully finish her season and compete at state.
Undergoing a spinal fusion
Krengel performed a T4 – L4 fusion on Love on April 23, 2012.
“A T4-L4 fusion spans the area of the back where a patient has the most range of motion, beginning at the middle of the chest to just below the belly button,” Krengel explains. “A segmental spinal instrument, or a rod and screws, is used to guide the spine back toward a more normal position.”
A typical T4 – L4 fusion generally takes four to six hours. Love’s bones were so strong and she was so muscular from her years as a gymnast that it took more effort to insert each screw. Love’s muscular build also led to terribly painful back spasms following the surgery.
“Children’s pain management team was so great,” says Wanda. “They would come around and check on Love constantly, trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. I can’t say enough good things about that hospital, what they did for my daughter and our family.”
Love’s strength and determination kept her going. “At the gym we always said ‘never less than the best we can do,’ and I kept repeating that phrase to myself. Every time I sat up, I knew that that was my best right then and there, and I would find out what my ‘new best’ is sooner or later,” recalls Love.
“Blessing in disguise”
Krengel believed that Love could do whatever activities her back allowed after the spinal fusion, and at only one year since her surgery she has shocked her treatment team at Seattle Children’s with what she’s been able to accomplish. In spite of having to relearn simple acts like walking because of the rods inhibiting her flexibility, she’s begun cheerleading, has taken up running and is even easing her way back into gymnastics. She can’t do all of the moves she used to do before her surgery, but she’s determined to keep working at it.
Love is brimming with positivity and has even begun using her experience to help others going through a scoliosis diagnosis or surgery via social media channels and other support resources online.
“I’ve now met so many people that have needed this surgery,” explains Love. “Having scoliosis and undergoing the fusion may have been a blessing in disguise, because this life-changing experience has allowed me to positively impact others going through similar situations.”
“My mom asked if I’d like to get my scar removed one day and I said no, because I worked hard for this scar, for my new back,” continues Love. “Two rods, 16 screws, one new me.”
Scoliosis is a condition affecting 2-3 percent of the population, or an estimated seven million in the United States.
Children’s spine surgery team completes roughly 130 fusion operations each year. To learn more:
Photo captions: 1) Love Wahl performs prior to her spinal fusion. 2) X-rays show Love’s spine before and after fusion. 3) Love post-surgery.
If you’d like to arrange an interview with the Wahl family or Dr. Krengel, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at firstname.lastname@example.org