Pediatric orthopedics

Dani’s doing great after surgery for a curved spine

These are "before" and "after" X-rays for scoliosis patient Danielle (Dani) Olson, who had spinal fusion surgery.
Before (left) and after X-rays for Dani Olson, who had spinal fusion surgery in August 2022 to correct scoliosis.

Dani Olson was an 11-year-old sixth grader when her pediatrician first suspected scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that usually resembles an “S” or “C” shape. In many ways, Dani’s case was fairly typical: Girls heavily outnumber boys with scoliosis, and the diagnosis usually occurs between ages 10 and 12.

Only a small fraction of those diagnosed with scoliosis require surgery to correct the spinal curvature. Many patients do well with non-surgical treatment, while others with minimal curvature can be treated with observation alone.

Dani’s curve, unfortunately, increased as she grew older. For six months, Dani wore a contoured spine brace designed to slow or stop the curve from progressing. She was a trouper, wearing the brace for upwards of 10 hours a day at an age when kids are very self-conscious about feeling “different.”

Dani also saw a physical therapist who specializes in the Schroth method, a treatment regimen that uses customized exercises aimed at returning the curve to a more natural position. Dani worked hard with these treatments; however, her curve kept progressing until it reached nearly 70 degrees.

Having turned 12 by this time, Dani and her mother Sarah Olson sat down for a consultation with Dr. Laura Bellaire, a UW Health pediatric orthopedic surgeon who specializes in caring for children with scoliosis.

“Dr. Bellaire was so compassionate and made Dani feel so comfortable,” Sarah said. “She talked about the pros and cons of doing fusion surgery, which is the most common operation for severe scoliosis. The more we talked, it became clear that Dani’s spine was likely to keep curving over time if left untreated. Dr. Bellaire also put us in touch with another patient of Dani’s age, and that helped reassure Dani that surgery would allow her to become more active again soon.”

Dani and her family chose surgery

Dani and her family decided to move ahead, albeit with some wariness about the idea of having two rods and a series of screws and/or hooks placed near Dani’s spinal cord.

A photo of Dani Olson wearing a back brace

In August 2022 at age 13, Dani underwent the five-hour spinal fusion operation, performed by Dr. Bellaire and her team.

“We made a narrow but long vertical incision down the center of the back, extending from the base of Dani’s neck to her waist,” said Dr. Bellaire. “We inserted a series of sterile screws into each vertebra and then slowly straightened the spine, using two rods that were contoured to fit Dani’s size and anatomy.

"To ensure that the scoliosis does not return, we carefully shave the back side of the vertebrae and add bone graft to allow for the formation of the fusion itself. This solidifies over time, typically reaching maturity about 6-8 months after surgery.”

Dani did quite well. Her pain was well-controlled, and her biggest challenge was overcoming feelings of dizziness related to anesthesia and pain medications, but after several days in the hospital she was ready to go home to continue her recovery.

“She was wiped out and wanted nothing more than rest,” Sarah said, “but the nurses and therapists helped get Dani up and moving as quickly as possible, which is essential for recovery.”

Other girls gave advice on social media

“After I posted Dani’s story on social media, we received several tips from other girls who went through the spinal fusion,” Sarah said, “As Dani recovers from surgery, they suggested that she stay active while taking care to protect her back. They also advised Dani to avoid stairs, and to leave each class a few minutes early to reduce her chance of bumping into others.”

Three months after surgery, Dani was moving freely and back to most of her daily activities. She found it increasingly easy to get out of bed each day and relished small victories like picking things up off the floor by herself. Her family was incredibly grateful to Dr. Bellaire and her team.

“Dani really liked Dr. Bellaire, who has incredible bedside manner,” Sarah said. “Dr. Bellaire spoke directly to Dani, not to me, which comforted Dani tremendously. She answered all of her questions and was so compassionate.”

After months of carrying herself cautiously, Dani can’t wait to get back to some of her favorite hobbies and even resume sports like tennis and volleyball.

“We think she’ll do very well,” said Dr. Bellaire. “Dani and her mom are really sweet, kind and thoughtful. It’s always a pleasure to see a child like Dani go through a big surgery like this with such patience and grace.”