I started modeling after being "discovered" at the age of thirteen. I was that cliché awkward pre-teen that every model claims to have once been; skinny, long-limbed, and bug-eyed. My parents and I repeatedly heard that I should try modeling with my "unique" look. Coming from a small town in North Carolina, modeling seemed more like a fantasy than a realistic career choice. After hearing about a model search through my local radio station, I decided to enter the competition. We drove four hours to Charlotte, NC, met all the scouts, and I received the most callbacks, to my delight! Shortly thereafter, I signed with an agency in New York City. During that time, I stayed focused on school in North Carolina and kept modeling on the back burner.
The response for me was positive in New York, however something started to happen that made my outlook feel bleak.
Around the age of fourteen, I noticed that my body felt very asymmetrical. I shared this with my parents and they thought I was being a typical insecure teen. "Oh, I don't see anything, it’s just an awkward phase," I heard. By the age fifteen it was even more noticeable. My waist came in much further on one side and my right shoulder blade protruded far more than the left. I convinced my parents to take me to a doctor. He confirmed my fear, that something was wrong. I was diagnosed with a mild case of idiopathic scoliosis and my spine had indeed started curving into an "S" curve. At that time, he brushed it off by saying it was very common among young women, nothing to worry about and all I could do was keep an eye on it. He did not recommend a brace for me, because he said braces had only produced insignificant results in aiding spinal curvature. I left that day a little confused and let down. All I learned was that I had scoliosis, but there was nothing I could do about it. Little did I know at that time, a brace could have been an effective option for me during that early phase of scoliosis.
As the high school years rolled on, I continued to travel to New York City during school breaks with my mom. Together we hit the streets on hot summer days with my modeling portfolio in hand. After completing all of my castings, we would come back to our hotel to unwind. Around that time I started asking my mom to put pillows under my back. My body was in pain after a full day of walking around. Clients started to take notice. She sensed something was very wrong and decided we would re-visit the doctor for another opinion when we returned to North Carolina. By that time I was seventeen, and as my body had changed into a woman, my spine had also further changed, for the worse. I felt that my body had betrayed me. The changes were undeniably more apparent physically. My body leaned to my left side and my waist curved on my right side, but not on the left. My balance was off, one shoulder was considerably higher and my hips were uneven. All red flags.
We consulted a different doctor who then referred me to a specialist in Greenville, NC. After seeing the specialist, the decision was clear to him, that posterior spinal fusion surgery was my best option. My spine was not only curved, but also rotated. Like a twisting rubber band, increased torque makes the spinal curve bend and twist even more. The rotation was causing my ribs to stick out more on my left side, and my shoulder blade to protrude more on my right. When a scoliosis diagnosis is missed or is untreated, there are risks for many health problems. Aside from joint and back pain, rotation of the spine can compress the lungs causing breathing problems and a whole slew of issues.
I perked up at the notion that I was, in fact, a candidate for surgery. The pain caused by my scoliosis had reached my personal threshold. It inhibited my exercising and just sneezing sent my body into a shockwave of pain. One thing scoliosis patients all have in common is that we understand how sensitive the nerves surrounding our spine are and how crucial the mobility of our spine is for directing the rest of our body to move in sync. Everything on my body from my back to my feet just felt "off", like I couldn't find my center of gravity.
I carried out the course of my senior year and opted to have the surgery soon after graduating high school. The best part about being young was that I felt fearless. The idea of surgery didn't scare me. On the other hand, living with a problem that hindered my everyday functioning and made me feel insecure, was a far scarier reality.
My x-rays showed a right thoracic high 39 degree curve with a left-sided thoracolumbar apex at the TL-junction measuring 52 degrees. In layman's terms, my spine was curved enough at the top and bottom to be eligible for an imminent spinal fusion. I was informed that the surgery involved attaching hooks, wires, screws and two titanium rods to the curved parts of my spine. Then small pieces of bone would be put over my spine so that they would grow together with the spinal bone, fusing it into proper position. I was told my spine would not end up being completely straight and we couldn't fix the rotation of the spine. That would involve covering the entire spine with metal rods, and ultimately I would have no mobility in my back whatsoever.
On the plus side, I could expect to gain one to two inches in height, from my spine straightening out, and from me still growing. I was informed of the risks of such a major surgery, but ultimately I was prepared.
The surgery date came on June 18th. I went into the surgery anxious, but ready to get it over with. I told myself I would receive good care from my doctor and nurses to help manage any pain I had after surgery and that I would feel fine.
Waking up from the surgery was definitely a wake-up call. It was certainly tougher than I had anticipated. I was in a lot of pain. I woke up in ICU and the worst part was when the nurses came in to roll my body every two hours. I had a morphine pump for thepain, but to be honest, it just took the edge off. Luckily the days following the surgery led to a good recovery. It wasn't easy. I almost had to have a blood transfusion and when I sat up for one bout of nausea, it led to a persistent migraine.
I remember looking in the mirror for the first time and feeling utterly elated that my body looked even for the first time since I could remember. I was also an inch and a half taller, overnight! My mom stayed by my side in the hospital all week and I felt unbelievably loved in her presence. I was told I could leave once I was walking again. I remember how determined I felt the first time the nurse walked me around the hospital ward. I felt a little too eager because that day I confidently walked to the bathroom all by myself, and then completely blacked out. Needless to say, I didn't get to leave that day but I was home within the next couple days. That week in the hospital wasn't easy but I knew the worst was over.
I was so excited to be going home. I was very determined to get better because I wanted to move to New York to pursue my modeling career. By the end of that summer, I was much stronger. I revisited the surgeon and he gave me the okay to make the big move to New York.
The results of the surgery were very rewarding. I came to New York with a whole new outlook on life and truly felt that anything was possible. There was still residual pain for about six months after the surgery, but I can honestly say it was all worth it. Nothing compares to the discomfort and pain I felt before my spinal fusion.
For the first year following the surgery, I was very timid about exercising. Although I was told I could do limited workouts, I was afraid of my new back. Modeling alone could be physical enough, holding strange positions in sky-high heels. I finally gained the courage to get into working out. I fell in love with low-impact yoga and later Pilates. I became very focused on fitness because I knew it was the only thing that could help strengthen my back even after surgery. Working out became my everyday regiment because I felt the benefits of my strengthened core and back and overall health. I also learned the importance of working out for function and doing low-impact exercises the correct way to help protect my joints and back. Although I lived with the negative stigma of scoliosis, I turned it into a positive thing in my life. It was my ultimate motivation for a strong body and strong mind.
One of the most challenging aspects of the fashion industry presented itself to me when I started going to castings for runway shows. I was always terrified that I would appear different than the other models on the runway. I felt that I had a very stiff walk. I was tired of harboring these insecurities and finally made some big decisions. I knew I had to put myself out there.
Eventually, I ended up signing with one of the top modeling agencies, IMG, and my life changed completely. To my surprise I was getting booked for the biggest designer runway shows in New York, Milan, and Paris. Finally breaking through and being cast for the most elite shows, I proved to myself that I could overcome any obstacle with perseverance.
Soon after my big seasons doing runway, I started working with Victoria's Secret, my ultimate dream job. Not only is it prestigious, but it is a brand that promotes a fitness lifestyle, which is in line with what I'm passionate about. I film commercials and walk on runways in just lingerie and I feel strong, confident and empowered doing it. Eight years after surgery, I'm proud I've stayed focused throughout the years of ups and downs and finally reached my goals. To this day, I work out three times a week with a trainer that continues to help me open up my shoulders and do specific exercises to increase my range of motion in my hips and strengthen my core and spine. I stretch daily and get massages to help alleviate extra tension.
It is very important for all people living with scoliosis to know their options. There is so much information available about modern day treatments like bracing, surgery, and/or exercising. Just because surgery was right for me, doesn't mean it will be right for everyone, but it is one effective option. Please educate yourself about all methods and treatment options for scoliosis, and the Scoliosis Research Society is a good place to start. I know living with the pain can make you feel very isolated at times, but don't let it prevent you from living your life to the fullest. Just remember anything is possible.