Kendra Heimlicher drops her oversized black tote, containing her required English class book, Homer's Odyssey, as she takes a seat in the Children's Hospital Boston Prouty garden. Wrists adorned with friendship bracelets, discussing reading assignments, Kendra appears like any other 14-year-old in their first month of high school. But her own epic story of illness and recovery is not that far in the past.
In May of 2007, Kendra went to her doctor for a check-up. She had noticed some upper back pains while bicycling around her Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and she had a strange sensation like her ribcage was twisting. Also, all of her friends were going through growth spurts, but she had remained the same height for a whole year.
Kendra's doctor diagnosed her with idiopathic scoliosis—a condition with an unknown cause that results in a curvature of the spine—and referred her to Children's, where she met with Timothy Hresko, MD. Idiopathic scoliosis is the most common type of the condition, accounting for 75 percent of all pediatric cases.
Paul Heimlicher, Kendra's father, said he was stunned when they found out Kendra had scoliosis. "Now there was a reason for her back pain complaints that I had dismissed as fatigue from her having to carry a heavy backpack to and from school," he says.
At first, the curvature of her spine was not very severe, and Hresko had Kendra come back four months later in November and then again, this January, to monitor her condition. By the third time Hresko saw Kendra, the degree of curvature of her spine had nearly doubled, and she was physically uncomfortable.
Treatment for scoliosis in adolescents depends on individual factors, such as whether the patient has gone through a growth spurt yet and how severe the curve is. Wearing a brace is often recommended if the curvature isn't severe; bracing won't fix the curve, but will stop it from worsening. Due to the magnitude of the curve and Kendra's age, Hresko recommended to her family that she have posterior spinal fusion surgery, which would fuse titanium rods to her spine, straightening the curve. "They elected to forego a brace because the likelihood of it working was quite low," Hresko says.
Kendra says at first she was in shock at the idea of surgery. "I just got really nauseated," she says, "I had butterflies; I was really terrified." A dedicated student, she was also worried about falling behind in her studies, especially because she would miss the last term of eighth grade, a time when teachers focus on preparing students for high school.
But she and her family decided it was the best choice, and in February she came to Children's for a nine-hour procedure. "It wasn't that bad," Kendra recalls. "I just fell asleep." That night, they measured Kendra. Already, she had gained an inch.
Hresko says that her spine will continue to grow in the parts where it was not fused.
Kendra was out of school for two months, recovering from the surgery. The worst thing, she remembers, is not being able to eat, because the morphine she needed to treat the pain hurt her stomach. "I was looking at food commercials and just wanting it all," she says.
But while she was in the hospital, her recovery was buoyed by her friends. Since Boston Latin School is just around the corner from Children's, they were able to visit in an endless stream, bringing cards, words of encouragement and even a homemade video with skits and jokes to cheer her up.
Now, five months later, Kendra is practically good as new. Except for a ban on contact sports for a year (which isn't her interest anyway) she has no restrictions on physical movement.
She says the experience has taught her courage. "I'm not as scared to do things now," she says. "I've been through a lot." Her goal is to make honor roll this term—if she does, her father has promised her a new computer.
Paul says he's amazed at how fast Kendra got back to her normal routine. "She was carrying her heavy backpack again by mid-May, swimming by June and riding waves at the beach over the summer," he says.
Kendra is extremely happy with the results of the treatment.
"Two months sounds like a long time, but it's really not," Kendra says, advising other kids who might be going through the same procedure not to be scared. "It's going to be hard, but the outcome is a lot better than before."
And at 5'1, the petite teenager is not exactly towering over her ninth grade peers. But after a successful surgery, Kendra's spine is strengthening, she is rid of all back pain, and she is now a full two inches taller than before the procedure. "I'm just happy I'm not the shortest girl in my grade," she says, flashing a smile.