Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Surgical advances get young scoliosis patient up and running


Kelly Wagenhurst always knew her little girl would face challenges.

Born with Turner syndrome, a genetic condition that can lead to a variety of health issues, Alyssa Best, now 9, still was a bright and happy child.

Then her spine started curving. At first, a scoliosis brace kept things under control.

But last year, the S-curve became unstoppable.

"It seemed to change overnight," says Wagenhurst, 29.

Alyssa's scoliosis was so severe she could hardly walk. As her spine grew more bent, her heart and lungs were running out of room to function properly.

The curve progressed from 45 degrees — the threshold when doctors start talking about surgery — at the beginning of 2009. Two months later, in March, it was 55 degrees; by June, it was 65 degrees.

Wagenhurst, who lives in Zephyhrills, took her daughter to several Tampa Bay area surgeons, but because of the complexity of Alyssa's medical history, none would take her case. And disputes with her health insurance company only exacerbated her search for help.

Then she was referred to Dr. David Siambanes, a newcomer to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa who specializes in pediatric spine problems. After an exhaustive round of tests and scans, Siambanes had a verdict.

"He said he could fix her. Those were his words," recalls Wagenhurst, "And he said he would spend all his time trying to figure it out and we are going to get her to have a normal life."

• • •

The National Scoliosis Foundation estimates that 6 million Americans have an abnormally curving spine. Though anyone can be affected, onset is usually between the ages of 10 to 15 and girls are at higher risk than boys. It is associated with certain conditions such as Turner's but, in most cases, scoliosis appears on its own for no known cause.

Baby boomers will likely remember being lined up at school so a nurse could check back, shoulders and hips for signs of scoliosis. School nurses aren't so plentiful these days, but the signs are clear enough that many cases still are found by nurses, teachers, coaches or parentsbox).

Detecting curvature of the spine by middle school age, before the next big adolescent growth spurt, can prevent pain, disability or surgery down the road.

The majority of scoliosis patients have such a slight spinal curve that they require no treatment. Getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight often are enough to keep associated back pain later in life at bay.

For those youngsters who do need treatment to stabilize the curvature, bracing is usually sufficient. Braces are made of custom-molded plastic and wrap around the torso, under the arms. They are usually worn 23 hours a day but can be taken off to bathe, swim or play sports. Siambanes says only a quarter of patients who need treatment ever require surgery.

The brace treatment has been pretty consistent for decades. But the surgery — which most experts agree is best done on young patients due to their more flexible spines — has changed dramatically in the past seven to 10 years.

"In the old, old days we used primitive (surgical) instruments, got modest correction, and kids were stuck in a body cast. It was just hideous," Siambanes said.

Today, newer surgical screws and rods (which can be seen in Alyssa's "after" X-ray), high-tech monitoring equipment and dedicated teams of spine specialists and technicians have revolutionized the surgery, making it safer and offering more dramatic corrections.

"You don't even need a brace afterward anymore,'' he said. "These kids are walking around in a couple of weeks like nothing was ever wrong and nothing happened."

• • •

Alyssa's surgery was scheduled for last month. By then, the curve had reached almost 90 degrees, making her case exceptional. Siambanes said he'd seen only a few such severe curves in the United States in more than 15 years of practice, although he had encountered more in the Dominican Republic, where he has done missionary work.

In Alyssa's case, her curved spine was pushing her rib cage far out to the right and throwing her hips in the opposite direction.

The surgery was done in three major steps. Siambanes first had to make Alyssa's spine more flexible by removing a disc between the bones of one vertebra. Then he placed large surgical screws in the spine and attached rods to them, allowing him to rotate and straighten the spine. Finally, he removed 3 centimeters of bone from her ribs to reshape her chest. "That really corrected her," says Siambanes, "She looks phenomenal."

Within two days she was out of bed with the help of a walker, and had ditched that within a week.

"We couldn't keep her in bed. She was running all over the hospital," her amazed mother recalls.

Five weeks after surgery, sporting a purple sundress and flip-flops, she darted around the back yard of her aunt's Brandon home one day last week, happily playing with a 4-year-old cousin. The scar that stretches the length of her back is already fading, and she says she has no pain. Beyond that, she talks a lot more about her favorite pop stars than her surgery.

Siambanes, who came to Tampa in September after 10 years in California, says the specialists and the technology at St. Joseph's helped him get such good results for Alyssa.

"I was going for a home run with Alyssa and I think I got it. While she'll always be short because of her condition (Turner syndrome), at least she'll be straight," he says.

Irene Maher can be reached at or (813) 226-3416.

fast facts

Scoliosis: What to look for

Have your child stand up straight and look at her from the front and the back for:

• One shoulder higher than other

• One shoulder blade more prominent

• One hip higher than other

• Head not centered over pelvis

• Have her bend over, and see if one side of her back appears higher than the other.

Dr. David Siambanes says the last sign in the list is what many parents notice first. "I've had moms see it when they tell their kids to pick up socks from the floor," he says. Parents may also notice that a child's clothing hangs unevenly — say, you need to hem one pant leg more than the other — or otherwise doesn't seem to fit properly.

Surgical advances get young scoliosis patient up and running 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 4:14pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. St. Pete qualifying ends. Seven for mayor. Eight for District 6 on primary ballot


    The smiles of the faces of the workers in the City Clerk’s office said it all. The qualifying period for city elections was almost over.

    City Clerk Chan Srinivasa (2nd left) and Senior Deputy City Clerk  Cathy Davis (1st left) celebrate the end of qualifying period with colleagues on Friday afternoon
  2. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county


    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.
  3. Registered sexual predator charged in assault of woman in Brooksville

    Public Safety

    Times Staff Writer

    BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County deputies arrested a registered sexual predator Thursday after they say he attempted to assault a woman and fled into a storm drain.

    Lee Roy Rettley has been charged with attempted homicide, attempted sexual battery and home invasion robbery.
  4. Honda denies covering up dangers of Takata air bags


    With just a third of the defective Takata air bag inflators replaced nationwide, the corporate blame game of who will take responsibility — and pay — for the issue has shifted into another gear.

    Honda is denying covering up dangers of Takata air bags. | [Scott McIntyre, New York Times]
  5. Former CEO of Winn-Dixie parent joining Hong Kong company


    The former CEO of the Jacksonville-based parent of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, Ian McLeod, has landed a new leadership role in Hong Kong. He is joining the pan-Asian based Dairy Farm International Holdings Ltd. as group chief executive.

    Ian McLeod, who is stepping down as the CEO of the parent company of Winn-Dixie, has been hired by Dairy Farm International Holdings. 
[Photo courtesy of Southeastern Grocers]