Back On the Slopes After Spine Surgery
Video courtesy of Rich DeSimone
At 14, Mia enjoyed playing sports and hanging out with her friends, she had known about her scoliosis for years and had some occasional back pain but nothing that would hold her back from doing the things she loved. Doctors monitored Mia’s scoliosis over the years without issue, but during a normal checkup in the summer of 2020 it became clear that her scoliosis had progressed alarmingly fast. Her parents knew it was time to seek a second opinion. “We found Dr. Michael Vitale at Columbia Pediatric Orthopedics through a friend at work, and coincidentally have come across four other people we know who also see Dr. Vitale,” said Mia’s dad, Rich.
During their initial consultation, Dr. Vitale explained that because Mia’s scoliosis had progressed so quickly, surgical correction of her spinal curvature was the best next step. “He was very thorough, and we initially went into meeting with him under the assumption that Mia would not need surgery,” said Mia's mom, Gina. “We left thinking; well looks like we are going to have to get this surgery done. We really were against surgery in general but knew Dr. Vitale uses other non-surgical approaches and was being transparent and honest with us at that point. The longer we waited, the farther down in the spine he would have to fuse, ultimately affecting mobility and flexibility long term.”
Mia had surgery in October 2020 and specifically had a posterior spinal fusion and instrumentation to stabilize the spine. Looking back, the DeSimones found some silver linings to having surgery during the pandemic – “even though day-of we had to alternate visitors and go through extra protocols, afterward she was able to get back to school quicker, sports weren’t happening at the time so there was no pressure to return right away, and overall, she wasn’t missing things during her recovery.”
Fast forward to three months later, January 2021. Lots of fresh snow had fallen and Mia told her family she wanted to go snowboarding with everyone else the next day. In weeks prior, the DeSimone’s had checked in with Dr. Vitale’s team and they reassured them that Mia was cleared to go back to doing everything she was doing pre-surgery.
“Dr. Vitale’s team pushed her to get back into her normal routine. I think it was more of a mental hurdle then physical at that point for Mia, but I think it made the biggest difference in the long term,” said Rich. So, with 2 feet of fresh snow dad, Mia, and a few of her friends hit the slopes. They stayed out on the mountain all day. “Mia was in such a hurry to get a waffle at the bottom of the mountain before they closed that I couldn’t even catch her. By the time I reached the bottom, she was already having a waffle!”
"My first day back on the slopes felt better than ever. I love to snowboard and I have been doing it for many years now. I didn’t want to be scared for my first run because I wanted to have fun and do what I love. I think that with having my family and friends by my side it made it much easier for me to get back out there. By the end of the day I was pain free and so proud of myself for what I accomplished," said Mia.
“Honestly, I got choked up on the first run she went down - I didn’t know if she would be able to snowboard again or how she would feel going down the mountain - it was moving and aspirational to see her back to normal,” said dad Rich. Returning to playing sports and living life as a teenager in high school was vital for Mia. “When looking online it’s hard to find stories of people post-surgery. I even got to the point where I searched #spinalfusion on Instagram and found some athletes I reached out to and asked how they felt post-surgery. Everyone I talked with had positive things to say and that was comforting. I hope that by sharing Mia’s story, and the positive outcomes she has had, it will encourage others.”
By the early spring of 2021, Mia has finished her first season of JV basketball, looking and playing like normal. "After my operation I was very hesitant to get on the court again. I felt that I was not going to play the same. The day I went back nothing changed, I was hitting all my layups, making my foul shots and playing defense better than ever," said Mia.
Mia is now going into lacrosse and volleyball season and back in the swing of being a high schooler. “The progress Mia has made has been striking. I think it really comes down to her attitude. Mia never thought she couldn’t do anything; her surgery hasn’t hindered her in any way. She said I am going to go back to living life just like I was,” said mom, Gina.
Mia's advice for anyone planning to get a similar procedure is to "keep your head up and look for the good everyday" during recovery. "I saw the good every time I would have a visitor because I would feel so grateful that somebody was taking time to make me feel better. It also helped me be proud of the smaller things I accomplished. I felt so happy when I was able to get in and out of bed on my own for the first time and especially my first steps after my surgery," said Mia.
From a parents perspective, the DeSimones have several pieces of advice for those in a similar situation. "First, many providers you see will say just keep an eye on the scoliosis, if you want to try and avoid surgery be pro-active. Second, If you have to go through with surgery, consider Dr. Vitale and his team. Dr. Vitale made us feel so comfortable and we honestly felt like we were in the best hands humanely possible. Lastly, don’t think of this surgery as something that is going to inhibit you, get the surgery done and get back to doing what you love doing, I think that is Mia’s philosophy."