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She Walks Tall after History-Making Surgery

Posted on 08/10/2009 12:00am

Six weeks ago, Carmen Stolk got a new kind of spine operation. She's almost ready to resume running and swimming

By Amy O'Brian, Vancouver Sun October 8, 2009

To watch her walk into a room, you would never guess that Carmen Stolk had major surgery six weeks ago to correct a curve in her spine.

The 18-year-old stood straight and confident Thursday morning at BC Children's Hospital, looking happy to be back in the building where history was made in August when surgeons performed a new, less-invasive type of surgery to correct her scoliosis.

Stolk was the first person in Canada to receive the surgery, which reduces the amount of trauma done to patients' backs, allowing them to walk the next day.

Stolk spent four days in hospital before she was sent home to Prince George. Since then, she's been going for long walks and is eagerly awaiting her doctor's go-ahead to return to swimming and running.

In contrast, her mother, who had surgery 30 years ago to correct her scoliosis, spent three days in the intensive care unit, had several blood transfusions and had to wear a body cast for six months.

"I am just very grateful," Carmen Stolk said while sitting next to her mother at BC Children's Hospital.

Rather than making one long, deep incision along Carmen's spine -- and having to strip muscle away from bone to insert a corrective rod -- her surgeons made three smaller incisions through which they fed the rod.

They then used screws to align and tighten the rod, immediately correcting the curve in Carmen's spine.

Dr. Firoz Miyanji is the pediatric surgeon who performed the procedure. Since fixing Carmen's back, he has performed the surgery three more times and said the improvements in blood loss and recovery time are remarkable.

"The reason this is a breakthrough ... is the blood loss is a lot less, the pain the patient feels after the procedure is a lot less, the requirement for pain medication is a lot less and what we're trying to do is get them immediately mobilized, so they stand and walk the next day," Miyanji said Thursday.

Patients undergoing other types of scoliosis-correcting surgeries normally require at least one night in the intensive-care unit and can only sit up in the days following with the help of a physiotherapist, Miyanji said.

When Carmen's mother, Donna Stolk, underwent surgery at BC Children's Hospital in 1978 to correct her scoliosis, her experience was drastically different. She doesn't remember anything from her three days in the ICU, but recalls the three weeks she spent strapped to a Stryker frame, being turned every four hours to alternately face the floor, and then the ceiling.

Her trip home to Bridge Lake, near 100 Mile House, involved lying on the floor of a float plane for two hours, and then lying in the box of a pickup truck to be driven to her home. She was in a full plaster body cast, on her back, for two months, and a walking body cast for four months.

On Thursday, the mother and daughter lifted the backs of their shirts to illustrate the drastic difference in their scars. Donna's scar reaches from the base of her neck all the way down her spine. Carmen has three two-inch scars.

Scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine, occurs in up to three per cent of the population.

Many people live with a slight curve in their spine for their entire lives without any significant problems. But when the curve is greater than 50 degrees, doctors often recommend surgery.

In Carmen's case, her curve was between 40 and 50 degrees when it started to cause her pain and discomfort. She had pinched nerves, cramping, her right shoulder was significantly higher than her left, she had a bump in her back, and her ribs jutted out to one side.

"Cosmetically, I really didn't like it," she said.

But within hours after surgery, she looked in the mirror and was delighted to see that her ribs were back in place and her shoulders were level with one another.

"It's amazing," she said.

aobrian@vancouversun.com