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  • Corey Levitan

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  • Corey Levitan

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New Scoliosis Procedure Helps One-Time Olympic Hopeful Compete Again

Dr. Joseph Osorio with Michele Pease-Downey

Dr. Joseph Osorio, a neurosurgeon and director of Spinal Oncology and Deformity Surgery in the Department of Neurological Surgery at UC San Diego, with Michele Pease-Downey.

In 1980, Michele Pease-Downey’s dream was to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swimming team. At 60, her dream was to continue walking. The lifelong swimmer needed a cane and, by 2018, the occasional wheelchair, due to increasing pain in her legs. She also experienced an odd and troubling sensation.

“I couldn’t breathe whenever I laid down on my left side,” Pease-Downey said. “It would make me have panic attacks because I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t breathe.”

Degenerative scoliosis is not the kind gym teachers look for in young adolescents. It’s caused not by growth but by progressive degeneration of structural spinal elements leading to spinal column malalignment, according to a 2011 review of the condition in the Musculoskeletal Journal of Hospital for Special Surgery, which estimated its prevalence in the adult population at 6 to 68 percent.

“It’s much more common than people think,” said Dr. Joseph Osorio, a neurosurgeon and director of Spinal Oncology and Deformity Surgery in the Department of Neurological Surgery at UC San Diego Health. “But many times a full length X-ray is not indicated, and therefore this can be missed outside of a complex spine surgeons practice.”

Pease-Downey’s spine curved so drastically, it rested on her left lung, which caused her to develop restrictive lung disease as a result.

A new spine surgery pioneered in Southern California by UC San Diego Health uses spinal rods engineered to be patient-specific. The spinal rods are created using detailed scans of the spine and predictive-analytics software that includes anticipated future outcomes.

Before and after X-rays of spine

X-rays show the curved spine of Michele Pease-Downey before and after a procedure to straighten it using specialized metal rods implanted by surgeons at UC San Diego Health.

“The curve for each rod has to be tailored for the spine curvature unique to each patient and their pathology,” Osorio said. “The way many spine surgeons operate today could be why spine surgery has the potential for early failures. Surgeons bend a metal rod to a desired curvature attempting to create the best fit without the use of modern technology.”

In February 2020, Pease-Downey underwent two surgeries in which Osorio realigned her spine by taking apart all the facet joints affected by the scoliosis and adjusting each one back into proper alignment. The first surgery—to adjust Pease-Downey’s lowest vertebrae—was performed through her abdomen. The second, two days later, focused on the scoliosis correction and placement of the rods into her back.

Her spine is now aligned,” Osorio said. “You can’t tell from her recent X-rays how severe her scoliosis was prior to surgery.

Though recovery for Pease-Downey was challenging and at first she couldn’t walk without a walker, she said she willed herself to heal through sheer determination at the worst possible time—the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had a physical therapist and a nurse come in twice a week, but then the country got locked down, so I knew that I would have to do it on my own,” she said. “So I took everything I knew from training as an athlete and pushed through. I felt like I owed it to Dr. Osorio and I owed it to myself.”

Not only can she walk without pain again; four months after her surgery, Pease-Downey was back in the pool doing flip-turns after not being able to swim for nearly six years. Now, she reports, she’s training for the 2022 U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship in San Antonio, Texas, April 28-May 1

“I’ve been swimming my whole life, and to have that taken from me made me more determined than ever to compete again,” she said. “This is my sport.”

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