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Teen Swimmer Keeps Kicking After Intricate Scoliosis Surgery

Wednesday, April 24, 2019 11:14 AM

Once you meet 13-year-old Zuzanna Janusz, words like “driven” and “unstoppable” quickly come to mind. A competitive swimmer since the age of 4, Zuzanna’s passion is clearly in the pool. But by age 10, she began to feel off-kilter during swim meets, tipping subtly to one side when she plunged into the water.

Learning Curve
The culprit was scoliosis, and it was progressing so rapidly that spine surgery would become the only option to stop it. Understandably frightened at first, the Lake Forest student and member of Deerfield’s COHO Swim Club put her anxious feelings in writing.

“I did my best to drown out the fear, the crushing weight of what was to happen, and focus on what the doctor was saying to me about the future,” Zuzanna wrote in a letter to NorthShore about her struggles.

The doctor she referenced is NorthShore Pediatric Orthopaedic & Spine Institute Surgeon David Roberts, MD, who shares a strong connection with the teenager. A competitive swimmer during his youth, Dr. Roberts fully understood Zuzanna’s swirling emotions. Surgery, he explained, would not keep her out of the pool—but the journey would not be easy.

“Zuzanna’s letter was very touching,” recalled Dr. Roberts. “It showed her strength and resilience, and it also confirmed what a significant life event this is for our young patients.”

Early Detection, Early Correction
Scoliosis is a deformity of the backbone that causes the spine to bend to the side, usually resulting in an “S” or “C” shape. “While the cause is unknown, scoliosis can run in some families,” explained Dr. Roberts, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “We most often see scoliosis in children between the ages of 10 and 18, and it affects more girls than boys.”

Early detection is critical. In Zuzanna’s case, her NorthShore-affiliated Pediatrician Katherine Shepherd, MD, noticed that a growth spurt had caused rapid acceleration of the curve. Zuzanna had been wearing a brace, but the curve continued to worsen. Dr. Shepherd quickly referred her young patient to Dr. Roberts for specialized pediatric spine care.

Life-Changing Procedure
Spinal surgery is rare for scoliosis patients like Zuzanna who are still growing. But since her curvature had progressed to a severe 55 degrees, Dr. Roberts determined it was the best treatment option. Using computer-assisted navigation in a highly precise surgery, Dr. Roberts placed 19 screws and two rods in her spine to correct the curve and support her back. Remarkably, after surgery, Zuzanna’s height increased by an inch and a half.

Four months later, Zuzanna happily plunged back into the pool. She found swimming emotionally and physically demanding at first, but she persevered. Her times were slow and she was out of shape, but “giving up isn’t the way out,” as she told it.

“I decided to give swimming everything I had, whatever the outcome,” she noted. “At the next swim meet, I didn’t even think about what would happen when I touched the wall after a race. I just focused on everything that had prepared me for that moment. When I looked up, I had dropped three seconds from my time before surgery!”

In her poignant letter, which Dr. Roberts now shares with other young scoliosis patients, Zuzanna thanked him for her “beautiful scar” that gives her strength. “I’m extremely grateful that throughout all of this, I had the kindest, most dedicated doctor I’ve ever known,” Zuzanna added.